x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Petraeus bids to calm Pakistan's concerns

Gen David Petraeus is "considering" Pakistani complaints over US missile strikes on militant targets in the border regions.

Gen David Petraeus and Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Pakistan prime minister, in Islamabad.
Gen David Petraeus and Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Pakistan prime minister, in Islamabad.

ISLAMABAD // Following Pakistani complaints over US missile strikes on militant targets in the country's volatile border regions, Gen David Petraeus, in Pakistan as part of his first international trip since taking over US Central Command last week, said he would "consider" the criticism. Criticism of US attacks on Pakistani soil that have targeted Taliban and al Qa'eda militants has risen in tandem with the increased frequency of cross-border operations launched by the United States this year. Pakistani military and government leaders told Gen Petraeus on Monday the strikes fanned anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. In an interview with a US television news broadcaster, Gen Petraeus confirmed the Pakistani criticism of US strategy. "In fact, we got certain messages with each of those we talked to today and some of those were very clear and we have to take those on board," Gen Petraeus said. "The tone of the conversation today was very frank and very forthright, which is as it should be." Pakistani complaints against US action in the border areas coincided with US presidential elections, which many Pakistanis view as a possible harbinger of change in Washington's "war on terror" strategy. The Pakistani government has assured the United States that it has "assumed ownership" of the "war on terror" but has warned that launching strikes in Pakistan is "counterproductive". The government, which is led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), has attempted to galvanise parliamentary support for operations against militants. However, despite succeeding in producing a resolution generally supportive of operations against militants, parliament remained hostile to US missile strikes. The opposition, led by the party of Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, demanded to know the basis of a "secret deal" between Islamabad and Washington that allows for a limited number for strikes. Khurshid Kasuri, who served as foreign minister under Pervez Musharraf, recently admitted that there was an agreement between Pakistan and the United States for "limited action" to take place. Military analysts have surmised that the allows the United States to target foreign militants but not Afghan or local Taliban. However, in recent weeks the United States has intensified attacks on compounds associated with Jalalludin Haqqani, an Afghan commander. Mr Haqqani, who waged jihad with the backing of the CIA and the Inter-Services Intelligence, a powerful Pakistani intelligence agency, in the 1980s, is deemed to be close to al Qa'eda and held responsible for launching attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Gen Petraeus met with Asif Ali Zardari, the president, and Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief, as well as Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, on Monday. According to an official statement, Mr Zardari warned the US general the missile strikes were "counterproductive" and "difficult to explain by a democratically-elected government. It is creating a credibility gap." An official told a local newspaper: "Pakistani leaders told Gen Petraeus it is not possible to ask our people to support the war on terror when our sovereignty is violated every day." Mr Gilani issued a statement ahead of the US general's visit: "American and Nato missile strikes inside Pakistan are counterproductive in the war on terror and the world should urge the United States to stop the incursions." Mr Sharif's party has charged that the United States does not listen to Pakistan's complaints. Mr Zardari has mollified his criticism of the US strikes by saying that "even the map cannot tell which side of the border" the assaults are launched. He also said that the "attacks are difficult to explain. US operations on Pakistani terrain - in particular a commando assault launched in South Waziristan in September - have been broadly criticised in Pakistan. But even sections of Pakistani society that once supported them have turned against the strategy. "There are elements in the new conflict landscape that now militate against the use of indiscriminate drone attacks," stated an editorial in the pro-PPP Daily Times newspaper. The editorial claimed that the Pakistani army's operations against militants in Swat and Bajaur curtailed the need for missile strikes. "Anti-Americanism" has increased in Pakistan and hit a peak, thanks also to the policy of drone attacks," the editorial said. Pakistani hopes for the next US president are focused on ending cross-border strikes, more aid for the country's beleaguered economy and greater support for the government. But generally Pakistanis believe that the country will remain volatile as long as western troops stay in neighbouring Afghanistan. A Gallup poll in June found that almost half the Pakistanis, or 45 per cent, thought the US military presence across the border in Afghanistan posed a threat to Pakistan. Only 17 per cent said it was not a threat, and more than one third, 38 per cent of respondents, had no opinion or would not answer. Few Pakistanis believe that a great difference will emerge with US policy in the region whether Barack Obama or John McCain becomes US president. Mr Obama has openly supported US strikes in the lawless and rugged border region, and has questioned whether Pakistan has done enough to fight militants despite receiving more than US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) in US aid since 2001. Mr McCain says engaging Pakistanis is vital to defeating extremists, and that cross-border strikes should not be discussed "out loud". The next US president must halt missile strikes on insurgent targets in north-west Pakistan or risk failure in efforts to end militancy in the Muslim country, Mr Gilani warned yesterday. He said Gen Petraeus "looked convinced" when he warned him the strikes were inflaming anti-US sentiment, but that he got no guarantee they would end. Mr Gilani's remarks, in an interview with the Associated Press, underscore the challenge the next US president faces in shaping a policy to deal with the militant threat in nuclear-armed Pakistan and its new civilian leaders. iwilkinson@thenational.ae