Washington/Islamabad: US President Barack Obama said Pakistan’s army had begun to realise that homegrown militants and not India posed the biggest threat to stability, after troops retook a key town from Taliban militants.
Obama also told a news conference in Washington on Wednesday he was confident about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and that the Pakistani army recognised the dangers of weapons falling into the wrong hands.
“On the military side, you’re starting to see some recognition just in the last few days that the obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan has been misguided, and that their biggest threat right now comes internally,” he said.
“And you’re starting to see the Pakistani military take much more seriously the armed threat from militant extremists.”
His comments came after Pakistani troops took the main town in the strategically important Buner Valley on Wednesday after they were dropped by helicopter behind Taliban lines. More than 50 militants have been killed, the Pakistani military said.
The Taliban’s entry into Buner, just 100 km from the capital Islamabad, from their stronghold in neighbouring Swat valley, unnerved many Pakistanis and raised fears in Washington that its nuclear-armed ally was becoming more unstable.
On Thursday troops used helicopter gunships and artillery to target militants hideouts in Buner, residents said.
“There has been artillery fire going on overnight and today and helicopters can also be seen shelling in areas where militants are positioned,” said Omer Suleman, a resident.
Before the military offensive in Buner, Western allies, who need Pakistan’s support to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize neighbouring Afghanistan, were worried the government seemed too willing to appease militants.
The militants’ advance into Buner came after the civilian government, which Obama said remains fragile, caved in to demands for Islamic sharia law in Swat and other parts of the northwest to pacify a Taliban uprising.
“I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think that they’re immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan,” Obama said.
“I’m more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile and don’t seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services: schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of the people.
Obama is due to hold talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on May 6-7.
Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani troops are deployed on the eastern border with India, and Islamabad has come under pressure from Washington to move troops to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda militants on its western flank along the border with Afghanistan.
India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed, have fought three wars since independence in 1947 and tensions remain high since the November attacks in Mumbai which New Delhi and the United States say were carried out by Pakistan-based terrorists.
The New York Times, quoting an unnamed official, said Pakistan had agreed to move 6,000 troops from the border with India to fight terrorists on the Afghan border.
US lawmakers said they planned to accelerate the flow of more than $400 million in aid to Pakistan to help with counterinsurgency operations. The US is also giving $1.4 billion in economic aid for Islamabad.
Pakistan had also gone on a diplomatic drive to assure foreign capitals that it has a well-established command and control system in place for its nuclear weapons, The Financial Times reported on Thursday.
Pakistan has responded to past scares over the risk of militants getting hold of nuclear assets by briefing diplomats and journalists on the security systems and failsafes in place.
Those briefings have always stopped short of revealing the number of warheads -- often estimated at up to 100-- or their locations and coordinates.
“We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don’t end up having a nuclear-armed militant state,” Obama said.
Adding to those concerns, “shoot on sight” orders were issued in Pakistan’s biggest city Karachi on Thursday after 24 people were killed in ethnic clashes the previous day.
The violence in Karachi resulted from tensions between Mohajirs, Urdu-speaking people who migrated from India after creation of Pakistan in 1947, and Pashtuns from the northwest.