Page last updated at 13:18 GMT, Monday, 15 September 2008 14:18 UK

US attacks raise stakes in Pakistan

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

An anti-US protest in Islamabad on September 12, 2008
The 'war on terror' has created fissures between Pakistan and US

"I am not convinced we are winning in Afghanistan. I am convinced we can," the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said at a Congressional briefing on 10 September.

The statement came less than two weeks after he held a secret meeting with Pakistani army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, aboard a US aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean.

It now appears that the military leaderships of the two countries failed in that meeting to evolve a shared vision of where the US-led "war on terror" should be going.

On 3 September, US special forces conducted their first ground assault on a suspected al-Qaeda target in Pakistan's South Waziristan region.

Since then, suspected US missiles fired either from inside Afghanistan or from CIA-operated Predator drones have hit at least five targets inside Pakistani territory.

This spate of attacks comes amid reports that US President George Bush authorised unilateral ground action in Pakistani tribal areas two months ago.

The Pakistani army has raised questions over this new strategy, stating that the rules of engagement do not allow foreign troops to operate on Pakistani soil.

It has also warned of "retaliation to protect our citizens and soldiers against aggression".

And now there has been another incident in South Waziristan, with local officials saying Pakistani troops fired warning shots to stop US soldiers crossing the border from Afghanistan.

Coming to blows?

Meanwhile, talk-show hosts of Pakistan's powerful electronic media are whipping up anti-US sentiments amid suggestions that war against militancy is not "our war" and that Pakistan should formulate a "matching" response to US attacks.

A resident of Sheikh Yasin camp
The 'war on terror' has brought only misery for many

So are the two top allies in the "war on terror" in danger of coming to blows with each other?

If unilateral US attacks continue, warns defence analyst Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, "the military commanders and major political circles will build strong pressure on the civilian government to downgrade cooperation with the US, and target American drones".

The general view is that if the Pakistani government ever goes to that extreme, it would be on the assumption that the Americans cannot fight Islamic militants without the logistical support offered by Pakistan.

Few in Pakistan believe though, that its political or military leadership would risk an outright confrontation with Washington.

In an editorial comment on Sunday, Pakistan's influential Dawn newspaper wrote, "we have no choice but to tackle the issue diplomatically".

But even this will require a hard sell, analysts say.

A core American belief is that elements within the Pakistani intelligence apparatus have been funding the Taleban and offering them intelligence on coalition troop movements.

The new civilian government which took power in March has inherited the problem of extended militant sanctuaries on its north-western borders which mostly emerged due to some questionable policies pursued by the military regime of former president Pervez Musharraf.

"I still have no answers as to why the proposed reforms to religious seminaries were not carried out by the Musharraf regime, or why some religious groups were promoted out of proportion to their political or spiritual clout," says Najmuddin Shaikh, a former foreign secretary.

Whatever the legacy of President Musharraf, Dr Askari argues that the new government's efforts "to contain the activities of Islamist groups and parties, which often act as political front for militants, have received a setback due to American raids".

It is now under pressure to placate anti-American hawks in the political establishment as well as an army which is known to harbour political ambitions at home and security interests in Afghanistan.

'Our problem'

And what about the Americans?

Jamaat-e-Islami activists shout anti-US slogans during a protest in Peshawar on September 5, 2008
American attacks on Pakistani soil have angered many

They may give in to their growing impatience to win the war against militants before the US presidential elections later this year by more attacks on Pakistani territory. The danger is that they may weaken the very forces that could turn the war against extremists into a popular war supported by most Pakistani citizens.

Or they might choose to stand back and give the new government more time to confront the militants on its own terms.

Najmuddin Shaikh is among those who believe that Pakistanis are only now beginning to realise the magnitude of the threat the militant's pose to the state of Pakistan.

"For the first time, all centres of power in Pakistan appear to be moving towards a recognition that this is our problem and we have to tackle it," he says.

"The Americans need to identify this opportunity, and allow it enough time to run its course."

He also says the Taleban are not as popular in the tribal areas as they are made out to be. People have accepted them because they were abandoned by the government.

"You need only to assure the people that you are with them, and the change will come much more quickly," he says.

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