Pakistan attack a setback to border peace

Pakistani helicopters struck a religious school on the Afghan border that some said was a front for militants.

Missiles rained down Monday on what the military said was an Al Qaeda hideout in Bajaur district, a restive tribal area along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

The attack, which reportedly killed about 80 people in a madrassah, or religious school, is the second on Bajaur in less than a year. But it has erupted across a vastly different political context, raising concerns about the direction of Pakistan's efforts to contain terrorism in the area.

When missiles last January destroyed a compound in Damadola, killing 13 civilians, the government of Pakistan was still at war with militants in the tribal zones.

Now, however, they are nominally at peace, having signed a controversial accord in North Waziristan that many, including officials in Afghanistan and NATO, have viewed with skepticism.

Under the deal, tribal elders agreed to remove foreign fighters from tribal areas and to stop militants from entering Afghanistan. In return, the Army released hundreds of Taliban militants and returned their weapons, vehicle and equipment.

Monday, the tribal zone's provincial government had been expected to sign a similar accord – now in doubt – in Bajaur, broadening a peace process with Taliban-linked tribesmen.

The timing of the strike raises questions about Pakistan's commitment to such deals, as well as the commitment of its allies across the border. It also threatens to stoke extremism in an area that seemed, somewhat shakily, to be moving toward peace.

Pakistan has worked hard to stave off concerns about its policy of negotiating with terrorists. Some observers say they have failed, and that Monday's strike was a vote of no confidence from American and NATO forces across the border.

"What has happened today is a remarkable disapproval of the Pakistani government's policy [in the tribal areas]," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political-science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "NATO and the Americans are telling Pakistan, 'If you have retreated from the area, then we will go there.' "

Pakistan's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, said Monday that the dawn strike was conducted by Pakistan military helicopter gunships, which fired four to five missiles into the facility. The madrassah targeted, he added, was used as a base for terrorist activities and housed as many as 80 militants.

General Sultan said that the attack occurred after the leaders of the facility refused to close it down.

One of those killed was Liaquat Hussain, a cleric linked to Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to the Associated Press.

While the Army took responsibility for the attacks, Pakistan's leading Islamic political leader immediately blamed the United States and called for protests to take place Tuesday. One religious leader, Faqir Mohammed, who was not at the madrassah when it was struck, called for broad protest during a funeral attended by thousands of tribesmen. Two days earlier, Mr. Mohammed had denounced the Pakistani and US governments and praised Osama bin Laden during a pro-Taliban rally of 5,000 in Damadola.

Uncertainty persists, however, over who fired the missiles, and based on what intelligence. There are speculations that the strike, as in January, was miscalculated, and mistakenly targeted civilians rather than militants.

"It looks very odd for the Army to strike this madrassah," says Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general and analyst in Islamabad. "Why couldn't they strike in a normal ground operation?"

Confusion has also prompted many to wonder whether the attack was conducted by American or NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Army, they speculate, might be claiming responsibility to avoid a political firestorm, as occurred after last January's attack. At that time, protests broke out when it was learned that a CIA drone had entered Pakistani airspace and fired upon a compound.

"[The strike] symbolizes a disagreement with the government of Pakistan. The agreement that Pakistan has signed, it has not been able to sell that to the US or Afghanistan," says Mr. Rais.

Whatever the source of the attack, there is consensus that peace efforts in the tribal areas have been undermined, if not derailed.

"I don't think another tribal elder will sign an agreement now," says Kamal Matinuddin, a retired lieutenant general. "It will put the government in a very difficult position."

Pakistan's counterterrorism strategies have been under fire for months. Its military strategy in the tribal areas, which began in 2003, had largely been seen as backfiring.

Hundreds of militants were killed, but so, too, were civilians and Army personnel. Rather than beating back extremism, military operations turned the tribal areas into an enclave of Taliban and Al Qaeda sympathies.

The Army, many analysts say, finally backpedaled, pulling out troops and devising a new strategy. The peace accord signed in September, and the one scheduled for Tuesday, constituted radical alternatives. Monday's strike, and the calls for violence by protesters, have now cast a shadow over the process.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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