ISLAMABAD // Clashes between US and Pakistani forces on the Afghan border are raising the stakes in a game of brinkmanship that could undermine the "war on terror" and set Pakistan's tribal areas aflame, analysts said.
With Pakistan still jittery after the Sept 20 devastating bomb attack that killed 53 people at the Islamabad Marriott Hotel, the instability was underscored when US and Pakistani troops shot at each other on Thursday. The five-minute gun battle erupted after soldiers at a Pakistani check post opened fire on two US reconnaissance helicopters, the latest in a string of incidents between the nuclear-armed allies.
Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, swiftly warned against further challenges to his country's sovereignty, already violated by a deadly US ground incursion and a flurry of missile strikes in early September. Barack Obama, the Democratic US presidential candidate, however, ratcheted up the tension hours later by saying that if Pakistan could not tackle al Qa'eda and Taliban militants on its soil then US forces should "take them out".
Analysts said while the two countries were never likely to go to war, the feud could have a disastrous effect on efforts to fight extremism in an evermore politically and economically unstable Pakistan. "The Americans do not realise how this is completely distracting the Pakistani government from fighting terrorism," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general who is now a security and political analyst.
The government, which won elections in February and forced out Pervez Musharraf, the US-backed former president, in August, had a chance to convince Pakistanis that the fight against terrorism is not just a proxy US war, Mr Masood said. "But these US interventions are eroding and diluting the resolve of the nation that is being built up, and moving it to a side issue. It is doing great damage," Mr Masood added.
The increased anti-Americanism in Pakistan's already hostile tribal belt is a particular worry. The Pakistani government has been working to win over conservative Pashtun tribes who live in the inhospitable region, but even those on the government's side have now vowed to kill any invading US soldiers. Mohammed Arif Khan, an elder in the restive Bajaur border region, said by telephone that thousands of armed fighters from his tribe had agreed to support a Pakistani military operation launched six weeks ago against the Taliban.
The army says around 1,000 militants have been killed in the operations. Mr Khan, however, added: "We are giving our full assurance to our government and our army that we will fight against militants - but also against foreign forces if they try to enter Pakistan." US concerns about peace deals signed by Pakistani authorities with pro-Taliban tribal leaders led to a decision by George W Bush, US President, in July to authorise increased US attacks on Pakistani soil.
Between 2001 and early 2008, Pakistan's government had largely overlooked the occasional missile strike by CIA drones targeting al Qa'eda kingpins. But the tensions soared in June this year, when a US air strike on a Pakistani military outpost killed 11 soldiers. Then missile attacks began to increase in frequency, becoming almost daily in early September. The crux came on Sept 3 when, for the first time, helicopters dropped US troops into the tribal region of South Waziristan, where they killed around 15 people. Tribal officials said a number of the dead were civilians.
The stand-off is achieving the opposite of both US and Pakistani goals for the region, said Lisa Curtis, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation, a US think tank. "Allowing tensions to build between US and Pakistani military officials helps al Qa'eda, by fuelling anti-Americanism and strengthening support for its radical supporters in Pakistan," Ms Curtis said. She called for Pakistan to demonstrate that it is serious about tackling militant safe havens, while Washington must better integrate its policies towards both Pakistan and Afghanistan. But there is also a division in the United States about what to do.
In a televised debate with John McCain, the Republican nominee, on Friday, Mr Obama said if Pakistan could not or would not act against militants then he would order US forces to do so. But Mr McCain rejected Mr Obama's strategy, saying: "You don't do that. You don't say that out loud." Mr Masood urged US politicians against scoring domestic security points with harsh words against Pakistan. "Obama is trying to win votes at home by proving that he can protect the United States," Mr Masood said.
"But he will not be protecting the security of America if he intervenes and also he will put Pakistanis in jeopardy." firstname.lastname@example.org