US troop presence in Pakistan meets surprisingly muted response

One day after three US soldiers were killed in the north, the widely anticipated backlash at US troops operating on Pakistani soil has yet to erupt.

By , Correspondent

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    A Pakistani paramilitary soldier searches a car at a checkpoint near Shahi Koto in the Lower Dir district of Pakistan on Thursday.
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A suicide attack Wednesday on a Pakistani paramilitary convoy that killed three American soldiers and five others near a girls’ school in the north was a reminder of the increasing US military commitment to the country.

The dead soldiers were among roughly 70 US special forces troops currently training Pakistani soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics as part of a $700 million military aid program in the current fiscal year. They were the first casualties of the training program. US involvement is set to rise, with President Barack Obama proposing $1.2 billion in military aid for Pakistan in the 2011 budget.

But while the US military presence in Pakistan is deeply unpopular with the public at large -- a poll conducted last October by the US-based International Republican Institute found that 80 percent of Pakistanis oppose cooperating with the US in the so-called war on terror -- the response to the attack has been muted.

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While some analysts had predicted the incident would crystallize Pakistani resistance to the US presence here, since Pakistani children were among the victims, a backlash has failed to materialize.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for the bombing in Lower Dir, insisting that the Americans killed were members of Blackwater, the private security contractor now known as Xe. The militant group accuses the firm of carrying out bomb blasts in Peshawar and other cities in the country, a conspiracy theory that has been floated in Pakistan since last year.

Pakistani authorities on Thursday arrested 35 people suspected in the bombing in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

Some analysts had predicted that the bombing, which also killed three schoolgirls and a Pakistani soldier and injured more than 100 others, would be blamed on the presence of the US troops. As a valuable target for the Taliban, they might have been accused of unnecessarily exposing others to an attack, those analysts theorized.

But so far that hasn’t happened, perhaps because attacks on Pakistani military convoys when US forces aren't present are already common. Last October, 35 civilians and 6 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an attack on a convoy passing through a crowded market area in Shangla, not far from the latest attack.

The Pakistan Army had also made it very clear that the US soldiers were present at its invitation, a fact reiterated Wednesday in a statement by the US Embassy in Islamabad.

Pakistani media have traditionally shown more deference to the military than to its civilian leadership. The Army is by far the country’s most powerful institution and a widely respected one.

Quatrina Hosain, a news show host on the private TV channel Express 24/7, initially voiced criticism on her evening show: “This is very disturbing. This attack was at a school. What were soldiers doing there in the first place?” She later appeared to temper her comments, however, with begrudging acceptance of the Americans’ role in providing training to Pakistani forces in dire need of counterinsurgency expertise to fight the Taliban.

The fact that the attack took place the same day as the news that MIT-trained neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui had been convicted in a New York court of the attempted murder of US troops in Afghanistan, may have also drawn attention away from the attack in Lower Dir. Ms. Siddiqui’s case has enraged many Pakistanis, who view her as the victim of an international conspiracy.

Pakistan Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that the agreement between the US and Pakistani militaries, which he stressed is an “open understanding” between the two, has been productive. There is no reason why the project, which is entering its second phase, should be affected by Wednesday’s killings, he said.

The attack also highlights the security concerns facing USAID development projects, which are set to ramp up with the influx of $1.5 billion of annual aid money over the next five years.

According to reports, the convoy had been on its way to inaugurate a school that had been rebuilt with the help of USAID after it was blown up by the Taliban.

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