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US strikes fuel Pakistan policy dilemma

By Frank Gardner
BBC Security correspondent

Damage from a US attack in North Waziristan
Damage to civilian life and property is making Pakistan's leaders uneasy

General David Petraeus has been doing a lot of listening this week.

The newly appointed commander of Centcom, US Central Command, has been meeting Pakistan's top military and security chiefs to decide how best to tackle the Islamist insurgency that flows across the Afghan-Pakistan border.

One of the issues most vexing to Pakistan is the ongoing missile strikes by US unmanned Predator drones, or UAVs, into Pakistan's tribal areas.

Since 1 September, there have been at least 17 of these strikes and, while US officials say al-Qaeda leaders are being successfully targeted, local tribesmen say scores of civilians have been killed.

So just how effective are these UAV strikes in degrading al-Qaeda's ability to operate?

A decapitation policy does make some sense
Nigel Inkster
International Institute for Strategic Studies

I asked Nigel Inkster, a former Whitehall insider, now Director of Transnational Threats at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"I think that these attacks are having some effect on al-Qaeda leadership. We should bear in mind that the number of al-Qaeda in the tribal areas is not infinite - there are only a few hundred of them.

"And of them, by no means all have the kind of leadership and organisational qualities that al-Qaeda needs to instigate attacks against the West. So a decapitation policy does make some sense."

But the strikes make no sense to the Pakistani authorities, at least not publicly.

They see them as an infringement of their national sovereignty and a radicalising factor that is making a lot of Pakistanis angry with both the US and their own government.

Unease in Pakistan

While some al-Qaeda leaders are getting killed in the missile strikes, like the chemical bomb maker Midhat Mursi, so too are a lot of civilians.

Pakistan says these airstrikes make it far harder to persuade its Pashtun tribes to turn against al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

"We think that these strikes are not achieving the objectives," said Manzoor ul Haq, Pakistan's Acting High Commissioner in London.

"We have a shared objective to clear this area, the region, from these extremists and terrorists. We are working together with our friends and allies and we are there to help in any way.

Perhaps, the most eye-catching development in recent weeks has been the Pakistani government and Pakistani army's supposed anger at the American raids into the tribal areas
Adam Gadahn
Al-Qaeda spokesman

"But if there are strikes across the border and these strikes are making a lot of collateral damage, these strikes so far have not achieved any target."

But on a visit to London last week, US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff insisted the US air strikes were in self-defence.

He refused to be drawn on whether Pakistan had secretly allowed them.

But that is certainly what al-Qaeda's spokesman, Adam Gadahn, is claiming in this recent internet broadcast.

"Perhaps, the most eye-catching development in recent weeks has been the Pakistani government and Pakistani army's supposed anger at the American raids into the tribal areas and the threats of retaliation if the said raids continue, which I can only describe as a cynical public relations ploy," Mr Gadahn said.

US choices

According to Sajjan Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation, one of the key factors here is money: how much Pakistan gets from America to remain on-side in the so-called war on terror, and what will happen after the US presidential election.

"It [Pakistan] gets billions of dollars a year, there are also covert payments, military assistance, all of that will be up for negotiation if Senator Barack Obama comes in," said Mr Gohel.

Archive image of a US "hunter-killer" drone, the MQ-9 Reaper, which has been deployed in Afghanistan
The US says it will deal with the militants if Pakistan will not

"In fact he's even talked about raising the stakes and carrying out more surgical strikes inside Pakistan to eliminate members of al-Qaeda.

"At the same time Senator John McCain has talked about pursuing a much tougher approach with the government there."

Whatever has been agreed - or not - behind closed doors with Washington, there has definitely been a step-up in America's actions to target alleged terrorists across international borders, be they in Pakistan or in Syria.

Secretary Chertoff characterised it as: "If you can't or won't deal with the problem, then we will."

It is clearly hurting al-Qaeda but it is also clear that if this cross-border policy continues under the next US president, he risks losing crucial support from the very people America needs on its side.

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