Pakistan airstrike targets tribes

For the second time in a week, the Pakistan Army has rained missiles on suspected militant targets, seeming to confirm in deeds what it has denied in words: That a controversial peace deal with Islamic militants has turned Pakistan's tribal belt into a sanctuary for attacks against Afghanistan.

Tuesday's attack, coming after an attack last week on militant supply trucks, underscores a troubling division of rhetoric and clouded policies on both the Pakistani and American sides that are hampering the war on terror, analysts here said. A peace deal signed with Taliban-linked militants in September of last year, the government said, was supposed to bring peace. Now Pakistani officials appear to be contradicting themselves by targeting the very same militants they were supposed to have appeased.

Similar mixed messages came out of Washington last week. In a blunt written statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last Thursday, US Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte characterized Pakistan as a base of operations for Al Qaeda and Taliban attacks against Afghanistan. One day later, Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs, applauded Pakistan's efforts in the war on terror during a visit to Islamabad on Friday. Analysts here say such mixed messages only frustrate the collective efforts of the US and Afghan governments to target Islamist militants.

"Washington needs to get its act together," says Samina Ahmed, the South Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group. "The government in Pakistan's actions will confuse the message they're trying to send."

Pakistani military intelligence officials said Tuesday morning's airstrike killed up to 20 militants in the village of Zamzola in the restive province of South Waziristan. The attack came hours after US Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed in Afghanistan for talks with President Hamid Karzai.

The timing prompted some observers to speculate whether the attacks were meant as a demonstration of Pakistan's continued cooperation in the face of a growing chorus of criticism from US and NATO officials. Pakistani government offiicials, for their part, rejected suggestions that the airstrikes were anything other than conventional military strategy.

"This is not related to anything. There is absolutely no way that we would go and kill our own people to please anyone," says Tasneem Aslam, spokeswoman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. "There must have been terrorists present," she says.

In another blow to the Taliban Tuesday, Afghan security forces arrested a man who is believed to be Mohammed Hanif, the spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, as he crossed the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

The heightened international criticism underscores the Catch-22 in which Pakistan finds itself. "On the one hand, the government is saying that peace is working," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a prominent journalist in Peshawar. "But it is also admitting that there are militants in the area in hideouts."

The contradictions in officials' statements damage the credibility of Pakistan's military. Analysts say that the differing comments undermine military morale and, even worse, scuttle the already little public support among ordinary Pakistanis for the largely US-led war on terror.

Instead of killing militants, analysts say, the US, Pakistani, and Afghan governments need to set a strong example of justice.

"What you need are arrests made, trials, and transparency. The kinds of thing that send signals to the extremists," says Ms. Ahmed.

Wire services were used in this report.

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