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President George W. Bush said Friday he was "taken aback" by a purported US threat to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if it did not cooperate in the fight against terrorism after the September 11 attacks.
He praised Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for being one of the first foreign leaders to come out after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to stand with the US to "help root out an enemy."
Musharraf had said in an interview to air Sunday on CBS television's "60 Minutes" program that after terrorists struck US soil in 2001, Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state, told Pakistan's intelligence director that the United States would bomb his country if it did not help fight terrorists.
"The intelligence director told me that (Armitage) said, `Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,"' Musharraf told "60 Minutes."
Armitage told CNN on Thursday that he never threatened to bomb Pakistan, would not say such a thing and did not have the authority to do it. Armitage said he did have a tough message for Pakistan, telling the Muslim nation that it was either "with us or against us," according to CNN. Armitage said he did not know how his message was recounted so differently to Musharraf.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Friday he did not know the specifics of what Armitage might have said to the Pakistanis.
"But we have made very clear that we went straight to President Musharraf in the days after 9/11 and said it's time to make a choice: Are you going to side with the civilized world or are you going to side with the Taliban and al-Qaida," Bartlett told CBS' "The Early Show."
White House press secretary Tony Snow also said Friday that he does not know what Armitage said.
"Mr. Armitage has said that he made no such representations," Snow said. "I don't know. This could have been a classic failure to communicate. I just don't know."
"US policy was not to issue bombing threats," Snow said. "US policy was to say to President Musharraf `We need you to make a choice."'
At a joint White House news conference on Friday, Musharraf said a peace treaty between his government and tribes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is not meant to support the Taliban.
He said news reports had mischaracterized the deals. "The deal is not at all with the Taliban. This deal is against the Taliban. This deal is with the tribal elders," Musharaff said.
Said Bush: "I believe him."
The president said that Musharaff had looked him in the eye and vowed that "the tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanization of the people and that there won't be a Taliban and there wont be al-Qaida (in Pakistan)."
After his meeting with Musharraf, Bush was set to meet on Tuesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and all three leaders were expected to sit down for talks on Wednesday.
Bush must work to placate the concerns of Pakistan, which is helping the United States track Osama bin Laden and restrain bin Laden's al-Qaida organization, as well as the struggling democratic government in Afghanistan, which is suffering its heaviest insurgent attacks since US-led troops toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
Afghan officials have alleged repeatedly that Taliban militants are hiding out in neighboring Pakistan and launching attacks across the border into Afghanistan. Pakistan, which has deployed 80,000 troops along the border, rejects the accusation and says it is doing all it can to battle extremists.
"This isn't about pointing fingers at one another," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said Thursday. "What this is about is finding ways that we can all work together to be able to achieve our common objectives, which is a free, secure and independent Afghanistan; a secure Pakistan border area as well."
Musharraf is strongly defending a truce he recently signed with Taliban-linked militants in the tribal North West Frontier Province where his government has little control. Under the terms of that deal, Pakistani troops agreed to end their military campaign against fighters in North Waziristan. For their part, the militants said they would halt their attacks on Pakistani forces and stop crossing into Afghanistan to launch ambushes.
"If they're able to live up to the terms of those agreements, the border should be a much quieter region," NATO's top commander, US Gen. James L. Jones, said at a Senate hearing on Thursday. "We're in the process now of observing very closely what is going on and what the effect is on the Afghani side of the border. And we'll know that within probably the next month or so."
Karzai said in a speech in New York City on Thursday that the Taliban was not gaining strength and he suggested that Pakistan's toleration of militants had helped make Afghanistan unstable.