Pakistan resists U.S. pressure on cross-border raids

Posted in Pakistan | 18-May-08 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The new government of Pakistan has made it increasingly clear that it has no interest in stopping attacks by militants across the border into Afghanistan, prompting a new level of frustration from Americans who see stopping the infiltrations as a crucial strategic priority in the war.

On Wednesday, the United States carried out its fourth Predator missile strike since January, the most visible symbol of the U.S. push for a freer hand to pursue militants from Al Qaeda and the Taliban who use Pakistani tribal areas as a base to attack Afghanistan and plot terrorist attacks abroad.

In Afghanistan, the number of cross-border attacks per month has more than doubled from last year. They present an increasingly lethal challenge to U.S. and NATO efforts to make progress in the war and deny sanctuary to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

On a visit to Pakistan in March, Admiral Eric Olson, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, met with civilian leaders to sound them out on the possibility of cross-border raids by U.S. forces. He was told in no uncertain terms that it was a bad idea, one of the participants said.

Pakistani officials said they were trying to restore calm to their country, which was rattled by a record number of suicide attacks last year.

Within days, officials said, the government is expected to strike a deal with militants in Pakistan that makes no mention of stopping the infiltrations. Pakistani counterinsurgency operations also have stopped while the government negotiated with the militants.

"Pakistan will take care of its own problems. You take care of Afghanistan on your side," said Owari Ghani, the governor of North-West Frontier Province who is also the official in charge of the neighboring tribal areas for President Pervez Musharraf.

A key architect of the pending peace accord, Ghani said he believed - along with many other Pakistani leaders - that the United States is foundering in the Afghan war.

Pakistan, he said, should not be saddled with U.S. mistakes, especially if a solution involves breaching Pakistani sovereignty, a delicate matter in a nation where sentiment against the Bush administration runs high.

"Pakistan is a sovereign state," Ghani said. "NATO is in Afghanistan. It's time they did some soldiering."

The peace agreement, Pakistani officials said, was aimed at stopping suicide attacks in Pakistan, which became a focus of the militants' wrath last year as the government pursued a more assertive policy against them at the urging of Washington.

Officials in Washington said the Predator strike Wednesday killed a handful of Qaeda militants, including one they described as a "significant leader."

The strike indicated that the Central Intelligence Agency retained some freedom to operate in the tribal areas. But as the gap between Pakistani and U.S. policies widens, the Americans are pushing harder for still more latitude.

During his visit to North-West Frontier Province, Olson was taken to the military headquarters of the 14th Division of the Pakistani Army in Dera Ismail Khan, just outside the tribal region, where he was apparently impressed by the extent of the anti-Taliban sentiment, Pakistani officials said.

Still, in the talks, which were organized by the U.S. Consulate here in March, the civilian leaders said they advised the Americans against fighting in Pakistani territory populated by Pashtuns. The government has long been wary of nationalist and separatist strains among the Pashtuns, whose population straddles the Pakistani-Afghan border.

"I said it would be extremely dangerous," Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of North-West Frontier Province, said he told Olson. "It would increase the number of militants, it would be a war of liberation for the Pashtuns. They would say: 'We are being slaughtered. Our enemy is the United States."'

Officials from the Special Operations Command and at the U.S. Embassy here declined to discuss the meetings.

Last week, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte, used perhaps the strongest language yet against Pakistan, saying that Washington found it "unacceptable" that extremists used the tribal areas to plan attacks against Afghanistan, the rest of the world and Pakistan.

"We will not be satisfied until the violent extremism emanating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is brought under control," Negroponte said in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy.

This month, Afrasiab Khattak and Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leaders of the Awami National Party, which leads the government in North-West Frontier Province, met in Washington with Negroponte and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser.

In their meetings, Khattak said, it was hard to deter the Americans from the notion of launching their own operations into Pakistan. The topic came up "again and again," he said.

The Americans specifically mentioned their concern that Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas were preparing an attack on the United States, he said.

"We told them physical intervention into the tribal areas by the United States would be a blunder," Khattak said. "It would create an atmosphere in which the terrorists would rally" popular support.

NATO and U.S. officials said cross-border attacks aimed at Afghan and NATO troops have risen from 20 a month in March 2007 to 53 in April.

The United States is particularly concerned about the attacks because they appear to be aimed at Canadian and Dutch troops, whose governments are under pressure at home to withdraw from the NATO war effort. In addition, a contingent of U.S. Marines has arrived in southern Afghanistan, increasing the concern about attacks.

Ismail Kahn contributed reporting from Peshawar, and Eric Schmitt contributed from Washington.