x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

US deaf to Pakistan's protests over missile strikes

Pakistani students burn US flags during a rally in Karachi to denounce US air strikes in Pakistan tribal areas.
Pakistani students burn US flags during a rally in Karachi to denounce US air strikes in Pakistan tribal areas.

ISLAMABAD // The United States is unlikely to stop launching missile attacks on Pakistani soil despite loud protestations from Islamabad. Before the US presidential election Yousaf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister, called upon both candidates to stop launching missile strikes. Mr Gilani said the attacks were prompting increasing anti-US sentiment and undermining his government's efforts to combat terrorism.

Gen David Petraeus, who was in Pakistan last week as part of his first foreign trip since taking charge of the US Central Command, faced demands from Pakistani officials to end the strategy. Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, complained to Gen Petraeus that the missile strikes were creating a "credibility gap". Gen Petraeus, conceded the two sides needed to discuss the issue in greater detail. "Certainly there does have to be a better explanation of the blows that have been struck in recent weeks and months," he said.

But he then claimed that in 18 strikes that had been launched in the past three months, senior al Qa'eda leaders had been killed. "It is hugely important that three of 20 extremist leaders have been killed in recent months," he said. He did not name the three, but US reports suggest al Qa'eda's No 4, Khalid Habib, was killed last month. Another mid-level commander for Osama bin Laden was among 27 killed on Oct 31 in one of two separate missile attacks.

Western commanders and intelligence officials have long claimed that the Taliban and al Qa'eda's resurgent strength is dependent on maintaining bases in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The attacks have continued. On Friday an unmanned drone aircraft fired a missile targeting a Taliban commander and killed 13 people in Kam Sam village in North Waziristan region, a stronghold of militants blamed for killing US troops in neighbouring Afghanistan and suicide blasts within Pakistan.

The strike drew yet more protest from the Pakistani government. "The series of unilateral actions against high value targets on Pakistan's soil is a self-defeating strategy. The US administration's reluctance to consider the repercussions of such operations is damaging the whole purpose of global efforts to combat terrorism," said Sherry Rehman, the information minister. The government called upon Barack Obama, the US president-elect, to scrap missile strikes. However, as part of his electioneering, Mr Obama had said if elected he would authorise cross-border operations to "hunt down" Taliban and al Qa'eda militants operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

There are indications that despite its public displays of displeasure Pakistan has struck a deal allowing for "limited" US operations. The Washington Post has reported a secret deal between the United States and Pakistan would allow better co-ordination of Predator drone attacks. The agreement, made in the United States in September by Mr Zardari, included a jointly approved list of senior targets.

Western diplomats claim the strikes have become more accurate because they are based on better intelligence. Gul Marjan, a police official, said that on Saturday police in North Waziristan found three bodies that had notes pinned to them. The notes said: "See the fate of this man. He was an American spy." The notes also said the men were from the neighbouring Afghan province of Khost. The killings suggest Taliban and al Qa'eda militants are on the lookout for spies as the frequency of suspected US missile strikes on their hide-outs increases.

Pakistani officials deny western claims that the strikes are contributing to counter-terrorism efforts. They said the strikes have caused a high number of civilian deaths and have acted as strong sources for recruitment to the ranks of the Taliban and al Qa'eda. The ruling Pakistan People's Party, whose leadership Mr Zardari inherited from his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated former prime minister, has so far failed to present a coherent counter-terrorism policy.

Last month, parliament passed a resolution calling for dialogue with militant groups and an end to military action. But its vague statements about Pakistani "unity in the face of incursions and invasions" failed to form a consensus. The opposition, led by the party of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, demanded to know the basis of the "secret deal" with the United States. Pakistan's powerful army, which must be instrumental in any "deal", needs to balance its co-operation with the United States with its own local concerns.

The strikes may scupper controversial peace deals the military has struck with militants in North and South Waziristan. As Gen Petraeus began his visit, a suicide bomber rammed a car into a checkpoint near Wana, in South Waziristan, killing eight soldiers. Officials said the army cannot afford to launch operations against militants who have sought refuge in Waziristan. The army is overstretched by operations in Bajaur, another tribal area, and the former holiday-resort valley of Swat, in North West Frontier Province.

While Pakistani analysts remain optimistic that Mr Obama will introduce a more nuanced approach to the region's politics - he has shown signs of taking up Pakistan and India's dispute over Kashmir - the United States looks set to continue its policy of taking action where "Pakistan cannot or will not". @Email:iwilkinson@thenational.ae