Islamabad: Strong suggestions by the US that it could resort to unilateral intervention against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan are generating increasing anxiety in the Pakistani press and among government officials, who warn that such an action could backfire.
Over the last week, the Pakistani press has been full of commentaries warning that US attacks without Pakistan’s permission would further inflame anti-American sentiment, drive more people into the camp of the militants and fatally undermine the already fragile civilian government. Privately, one senior government official said US strikes would produce “chaos”.
But the English-language newspapers have also stressed that the Pakistani government has failed to deal with the Islamic militants, and they have made repeated pleas in recent days for the government and the military to take on the militants before Washington does the job, uninvited.
“What is missing and is urgently required in Islamabad is a coherent policy” for dealing with the militants in the tribal areas, said one in a series of recent editorials in the Dawn. It continued: “The world and all of Pakistan is looking to Islamabad for leadership and vision. The time to act is running out very quickly.”
Washington has increased the pressure in the past 10 days, asserting in public statements and closed-door meetings with senior Pakistani officials that the increase in the number of Pakistani Taliban fighters crossing from the tribal areas into Afghanistan to fight Nato and US forces was unacceptable.
US President George W. Bush said last week that “some extremists are coming out of parts of Pakistan into Afghanistan.” He added, “That’s troubling to us, troubling to Afghanistan, and it should be troubling to Pakistan.” Such statements have been interpreted here as a sign of rising American impatience.
Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said on Sunday, while visiting Afghanistan, that if the US had “actionable intelligence against high-value Al Qaeda targets, and the Pakistani government was unwilling to go after those targets,” the US should strike.
Alarm in Pakistan about possible US intervention rose after a surprise visit on 12 July by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, admiral Mike Mullen, to Islamabad, where he met the army chief of staff, general Ashfaq Parvez Kayani; Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani; and President Pervez Musharraf.
Days afterward, reports about a build-up of Nato forces on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan added to Pakistani anxiety.
A senior Pakistani government official familiar with the content of the meetings with Mullen, who declined to be identified because public statements were not released, said the admiral was informed that unilateral action by the US would be “counterproductive”.
But the Americans did not recognize the downside of intervention, the official said. “They have tunnel vision. They see more foreign fighters pouring in, more training, more cross-border attacks.”
The frequent request by the Pakistanis for the sharing of current intelligence has been refused by the US because it lacked confidence in what the Pakistani military might do with the information, according to a former US military officer who served in Pakistan and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the situation.
The Bush administration has given more than $10 billion (around Rs42,700 crore) in military aid to Pakistan since 9/11, when President Musharraf agreed to become an ally in the campaign against terrorism. Of that amount, $5.5 billion was specifically intended for counterinsurgency efforts. A US congressional report this year said that Pakistan did not spend the $5.5 billion.
In unusually blunt terms, some of the commentaries in the Pakistani press have disputed that the army has actually been fighting the Taliban or Al Qaeda at all.
Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a defence analyst, wrote in Sunday’s issue of The Daily Times, that many in Pakistan’s military and intelligence leadership did not view the Taliban and other Islamic extremists as the main threat. “They view Taliban violence as a reaction to the use of force against them by Pakistan and the US.”
It was understandable that US commanders would want to take unilateral action against the Taliban, he wrote. But there was “no guarantee that such an action would eliminate militancy in the area.”
In Washington, a new report by Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, cautioned against any uninvited intervention.
“The US military would find Pakistan’s tribal areas extremely tough going,” he said. “The primary challenge would come not from the militants or terrorists but from the rest of Pakistan’s 165 million people and army,” he added.
“Under almost any conceivable circumstance, the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis would perceive a US invasion of the tribal areas as an attack on national sovereignty requiring resistance by every means possible.”
©2008/International Herald Tribune