The steady increase in U.S. cross-border attacks from Afghanistan into the frontier areas of Pakistan – whether by drone missiles or attack helicopters – is causing a serious backlash from both the region’s residents and Islamabad’s government and military leadership.
In the latest case, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari Thursday closed NATO’s primary supply route into land-locked Afghanistan after helicopters from the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) attacked a military checkpoint in Kurram Agency inside Pakistan, reportedly killing three Pakistani soldiers and injuring three others.
While ISAF officials apologized for the casualties and insisted that the attack was carried out in "self-defense," the government’s closure of the supply route – even if temporary – through the Khyber Pass marked an unusually strong reaction on Islamabad’s part.
"We will have to see whether we are allies or enemies," remarked Interior Minister Rehman Malik immediately after the attack, the third of four reported cross-border raids by ISAF forces allegedly engaged in "hot pursuit" of Afghan insurgents over the past several days.
At the same time, a suspected drone attack carried out in neighboring North Waziristan Agency reportedly killed at least five suspected Taliban militants tied to the so-called Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban faction most closely associated with al-Qaeda’s senior leadership which it is believed to shelter.
The attack near Miranshah was the latest in more than 120 drone strikes in Pakistan authorized under the administration of President Barack Obama since he took office 20 months ago – a sharp and apparently still- accelerating increase in such strikes and more than double the number authorized under George W. Bush, according to the New America Foundation (NAF), a Washington-based think tank.
Indeed, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out more attacks in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in September than in any month since the spy agency first launched the cross-border program six years ago, according to a tally maintained by NAF, which also released the results of an unprecedented survey conducted in FATA that concluded that the drone campaign may be counterproductive.
Based on face-to-face interviews in June and July with 1,000 adults across all seven of FATA’s tribal agencies, the survey found that nearly nine out of 10 respondents strongly oppose U.S. military operations in the region and that nearly six in 10 believe that suicide attacks against U.S. military forces are justified. Indeed, the United Nations has found many suicide attackers in Afghanistan came from the FATA region.
"Our poll finding that shows these suicide fighters enjoy widespread popular support inside FATA explains in large measure the success of their sanctuary inside the tribal areas – a safe haven that has had devastating consequences for American soldiers inside Afghanistan," according to a summary article by NAF’s Peter Bergen and Patrick Doherty, and Ken Ballen of Terror Free Tomorrow, a polling group that conducted the survey, and published by CNN.com.
The news from the survey was not all bad for Washington. More than three of four respondents said they opposed the presence in their region of al-Qaeda, and more than two- thirds said they opposed the Pakistani Taliban.
And the poll, which was conducted before the disastrous flooding that displaced hundreds of thousands of FATA residents, showed strong support for the Pakistani military and its efforts to pursue al-Qaeda and subdue the Pakistani Taliban.
Nearly 80 percent of respondents said FATA should be governed by the army, which over the past two years has conducted counterinsurgency campaigns against the Taliban in all of the agencies except North Waziristan. And, in contrast to the support for suicide bombings against U.S. military targets, only one in 10 respondents said they approved of such acts against the Pakistani military.
The intensification of cross-border U.S. military action, particularly the last month’s spike in attacks, has stoked much speculation over the reasons why.
Media reports over the last several days have claimed that Washington is trying to disrupt an al-Qaeda plan allegedly hatched in FATA to carry out a series of attacks in November in major West European cities similar to those carried out by a group of terrorists associated with Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) against high-profile targets in Mumbai, India, in November 2008. Nearly 200 people were killed by gunfire and bombings in the coordinated assault.
Some European governments have taken steps in recent days indicating they believe the threat of terrorist attacks has indeed become more serious.
CIA chief Leon Panetta was in Islamabad Thursday to brief his counterpart in the Pakistani military’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, on the alleged plot, which purportedly involves both the LeT and the Haqqani network, according to a "high-level source" cited by Josh Rogin, a prominent blogger at the foreignpolicy.com website.
Panetta was also pressing his interlocutors to permit ISAF to expand and intensify its missions, including CIA drone strikes, against al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and their associates, inside Pakistan, according to Rogin’s source.
On the eve of Panetta’s visit, U.S. attack helicopters carried out what ISAF called a "hot pursuit" attack against suspected Haqqani militants as they retreated across the border from Khost into North Waziristan, reportedly killing more than 50 of them.
The Obama administration has been deeply frustrated by the Pakistani military’s refusal to launch an offensive in North Waziristan, which, in addition to serving as a safe haven for the Haqqani network and al-Qaeda, is also used as a key base for the Taliban’s infiltration into Afghanistan.
Indeed, most experts here believe that some ISI units, if not the spy agency itself, continue to provide covert support to the Haqqani network and other Afghan Taliban factions in order to maximize Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan’s future.
With little, if any, apparent progress being made by the "surge" of nearly 40,000 more U.S. and NATO forces into southern and eastern Afghanistan in the past six months, the U.S. commander there, Gen. David Petraeus, is particularly eager to, in the words of a "senior administration official" quoted by Tuesday’s New York Times, "turn up the heat on the safe havens."
The same Times article reported that the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOC) has recently been updating plans for cross-border raids by U.S. troops.
If the new survey is any indication of popular sentiment, such an escalation is almost certain to provoke a greater backlash from local residents. It would also be far more likely to draw strong protests from the Pakistani army and government, which have quietly gone along with drone strikes but appear to regard other forms of cross-border attacks as much more serious violations of Pakistan’s national sovereignty.
Washington’s frustration with the ISI and the Pakistani military is likely to be compounded both by reports of growing tensions between the military’s leadership and the Zardari government, particularly over latter’s alleged incompetence in dealing with the floods, and by growing evidence that the army, which currently receives about two million dollars a year in U.S. aid, has summarily executed scores – if not hundreds – of suspected Pakistani Taliban militants in its counterinsurgency offensives.
(Inter Press Service)