Pakistanis: US Missile Strikes Will Affect War on Terror

KARACHI – Missile strikes carried out by the United States on Damadola village near the Afghan border that killed 18 people may fuel religious fanaticism in this country and seriously complicate President George W. Bush’s war on terror, say moderate political leaders and security analysts.

"Political realities in Pakistan need to be better be understood by the Americans. They could do with more consideration for the sentiments of a smaller power that America claims to be its ally," B. M. Kutty, organizing secretary of the Pakistan Workers Party, told IPS.

Many in this officially Islamic country of 150 million people are opposed to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s policy of supporting Washington’s war directed against the al-Qaeda network –the leadership of which is believed to be holed up in the remote tribal areas of the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Indeed, the target was Ayman al-Zawahiri, second-in-command to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who, according to intelligence agencies, was expected to be present at the scene of the attack for a dinner to celebrate Eid festivities.

"Benefit from the incident is being reaped by Islamist parties that are taking credit for the protest campaign [against the air strikes] and are raising the issue of sovereignty, that is directed as much against America as at Musharraf," Kutty said.

It is not known if al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian national – familiar to television viewers around the world for goading Muslims into jihadist attacks on U.S. installations – died in the air strikes. But they have kicked up a storm of protests across Pakistan .

Attacks within Pakistan "cannot be condoned," said Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, before departing Tuesday night for a week-long visit to the U.S. "Pakistan is committed to fighting terrorism, but naturally we cannot accept any action within our country which results in what happened [at Damadola] over the weekend."

The civilian deaths at Damadola not only drew public protests but also calls for the cancellation of Aziz’s visit to Washington that, according to an official note, would be to discuss issues within the "framework of the growing strategic relations" between the two countries.

Loud protests and demands to call off the visit came especially from the fundamentalist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance, which has enormous influence in the tribal belt close to Afghan border and rules the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in which Damadola falls.

On Sunday, thousands of Pakistanis took part in anti-U.S. protest rallies across the country – the largest of them in this southern port city, where leaders of the alliance demanded that Musharraf step down and Aziz call off his trip.

"We demand that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz cancel his visit," said Ghafoor Ahmed, deputy chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami party and senator told the rally. There were suggestions that Aziz would end up committing Pakistan to even more unpopular compromises in Washington.

"Many Pakistanis assume that America is a friend of Pakistan,but this is a government living in a political vacuum. Political support for it comes from sycophants and upper-class grandees who have no standing with the masses," said Kutty. "Nobody knows the exact commitment that Musharraf may have made to the Americans."

Pakistan is already engaged in suppressing insurgency in the NWFP’s tribal areas. Last week, a Taliban suicide bomber killed many soldiers moving in a military convoy in the Kandhar area.

Across the border, in Afghanistan, the U.S. maintains some 20,000 troops that are supposed to coordinate with Pakistani forces under Operation Enduring Freedom, to mop up the "remnants" of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but may not cross into Pakistani territory.

However, U.S. military aircraft have attacked and killed suspects through aerial action in the NWFP on several occasions – the Damadola incident being only the latest – angering the local population against the Musharraf regime and Washington.

The deliberate violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by a supposedly friendly military has been hard to swallow but, to make matters worse, U.S. officials have not only defended the action but refused to provide guarantees that the attacks won’t be repeated.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, responding to questions from journalists in Monrovia on the protests in Pakistan, refused to comment on the possibility of similar action in the future but said the al-Qaeda and the Taliban were "not people who can be dealt with lightly."

"This kind of language is never used in respect of a sovereign country with which America maintains friendly relations," said a diplomat who asked not to be named. "Nothing could be more offensive than foreign aircraft firing rockets at village homes and killing as many as 18 people. This is unacceptable."

The suspicion that surrounds the real nature of Aziz’s visit to Washington has been fomented by recent moves to get Pakistan to accept additional responsibilities in Afghanistan while the U.S. concentrates on Iraq.

"It does seem as if the Americans have decided to concentrate more on Iraq than on Afghanistan, where they have inducted North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] troops," said the security analyst and commentator Brig. A. R. Siddiqui.

"The worry is that Pakistan could soon be left saddled with the job of reinforcing NATO troops, especially in dangerous and outlying areas; already NATO countries are reluctant to continue endangering their own troops," said Siddiqui.

NATO, which maintains 9,000 personnel in Afghanistan and has since 2003 been running the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), did agree, last month, to send in 6,000 more troops to relieve 4,000 U.S. soldiers.

"Pakistan cannot afford to get too deeply and directly involved in Afghan affairs. It would deepen the Afghans’ dislike, indeed hatred, of Pakistanis. Pakistan’s earlier experience in Afghanistan is forbidding enough," said Siddiqui.

Siddiqui said what was worse than the possible loss of Pakistani lives in Afghanistan was the danger of that country’s many troubles spilling over and infecting domestic politics in Pakistan – as has happened before.

"If and when Pakistan agrees to send its troops to Afghanistan, NATO would be tempted to thin out first and then pull out, leaving the baby in the Pakistani lap. Such a situation would be beyond Pakistan’s capacity to handle, especially when the country is already splintered politically," the analyst told IPS.

Frustration and anger over continued support for U.S. policies has been serious enough for foreign minister Khursheed Kasuri to warn in parliament that the aerial attacks in the NWFP could "adversely impact the ongoing cooperation in the war against terror."