The US should express regret for lives lost in Pakistan airstrike

A tearjerker from the 1970s starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal popularized the adage "Love Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry." That maxim may work in romance - although even that is doubtful - but it is certainly not good for dealing with a weak and critical ally.

Alas, that's precisely the course the Bush administration has followed in the wake of a US airstrike on a Pakistani village near the Afghan border. The attack was meant to kill Al Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. It appears to have missed its target, though it killed some of his aides. It certainly killed a dozen Pakistani villagers, including women and children. This is the second such attack on Pakistan in a fortnight, and the previous one also caused eight civilian deaths.

The Pakistani government has naturally issued a formal protest. The Bush administration, however, has yet to express regret to the Pakistani government and people over the deaths of women and children. It would also be a good thing if the US media recognized just how much damage this kind of silence does to the US image and US interests. These attacks have wiped out all the goodwill garnered in Pakistan by the generous (though belated) US response to the Pakistan earthquake in October.

While the Pakistani administration of President Pervez Musharraf has not been a wholly satisfactory ally in the war on terror, it has certainly been a very useful one. More than half of all the Al Qaeda suspects captured in the world have been arrested by the Pakistani authorities, independently or in collaboration with the CIA. Without the cooperation of the Pakistani military, the flow of help from the ethnic Pashtuns of Pakistan to the Pashtun-based Taliban in Afghanistan would be practically uncontrollable. Following this latest attack, it may prove even harder for the Pakistani army to operate in the border region, where it has already taken significant casualties fighting against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

By helping the US in this way, against the wishes of a great many Pakistanis, Mr. Musharraf and his colleagues have incurred serious domestic risks. There have been two terrorist attempts to kill Musharraf himself. The latest airstrike has sparked massive protests, led by the Islamist parties, against his government and Pakistan's alliance with the US. Even more dangerous, Musharraf's strategy is widely unpopular within the Army and the Pakistani intelligence services. Quite apart from issues of decency, the US simply cannot afford to humiliate a key ally in this way.

Despite these realities, not only has the administration failed to make a gesture that would have cost it nothing, members of Congress have rubbed salt in Pakistani wounds by affirming that the strike was justified but failing to express equally clearly about their sorrow about the "collateral" deaths of innocent civilians.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona was an exception. He said that the deaths were "terrible and we regret that"; he even said "we apologize," but was it really necessary to add that we would not hesitate to "do the same thing again"? Some things are better left unsaid. Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, famous for his foot-in-mouth tendencies, crowed about the necessity of continued strikes against targets in Pakistan. Then there's Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who referred to the airstrike as a "regrettable situation" but then added, "what else are we supposed to do?" Well, an unequivocal expression of such regret in a personal phone call to Musharraf could have been one option.

The US administration has said many times that the war against terror can never be won single-handedly. Despite all the triumphalist talk about a "unipolar world," that's exactly right. We depend daily and critically on the help of Muslim governments, and of many ordinary Muslim policemen and security officials. Some of these expose themselves to great risks through helping us - none more than Musharraf.

The US attempts to kill Al Qaeda leaders in the Pakistani tribal areas may perhaps be justified, as these areas are not under the full control of the Pakistani authorities. However, Washington should make a careful assessment of whether even successful attacks, if they radically alienate the Pakistani population and undermine Pakistani cooperation against terrorism, may not lead to the US trading a limited tactical victory for a major strategic defeat. What should be beyond debate is that as a matter of the most elementary gratitude and decency, Washington owes Islamabad an expression of sorrow for innocent lives lost.

Anatol Lieven and Rajan Menon are senior fellows at the New America Foundation in Washington. Mr. Menon is also a professor of International Relations at Lehigh University.

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