US airstrikes put Pakistan's leaders on defensive

It summoned the US ambassador Thursday to formally complain after an attack hit deep inside Pakistani territory.

This week's suspected US airstrike deep in Pakistani territory – part of an unpopular but escalating campaign – has put the new government here on increasingly wobbly footing.

In office for less than a year, it now faces one of the main challenges that forced former President Pervez Musharraf from office in August: appearing to accept US conditions in the "war on terror" against the wishes of its people.

While the government led by President Asif Ali Zardari doesn't face the disruptive opposition that brought down Mr. Musharraf's regime, it's increasingly on the defensive, especially after The Washington Post reported Sunday that it tacitly agreed to the attacks in September.

On Thursday, Islamabad summoned US Ambassador Anne Patterson to protest the previous day's airstrike – not the first time it's formally complained to US officials. Yet the attacks have persisted: Pakistan has seen at least 20 strikes in the past three months, including a rare ground incursion in September.

"If this pattern continues," says Hassan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst and former professor of Pakistan studies at Columbia University, "the Pakistani government will be looking at some seriously tough times ahead."

Wednesday's attack, which occurred in Bannu district some 40 miles inside Pakistan's western border and reportedly killed a handful of Al Qaeda's Arab operatives, is the latest military incident in "what's been a slow escalation by America against Pakistan," says Ansar Abbasi, an editor at The News, an English-language daily.

But this strike sparked a fresh wave of anger because it was the first inside Pakistan's "settled" region. Until now, drone attacks have landed in Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan – a semiautonomous region referred to here as "the others' land."

The government had already been put on the defensive earlier this week, after the Washington Post article said it had agreed on a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with the US on the strikes. As part of the deal, it would "complain noisily about the politically sensitive strikes."

"The government's attitude to all these attacks in the past months indicates there must be some sort of understanding" that allows the Americans to launch attacks on Pakistani soil, says Khalid Rahman at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad. "The fact that we are helping supply NATO forces [in Afghanistan] with the equipment that is then used to attack us makes no sense" unless there is a quid pro quo, he says. US and NATO forces in Afghanistan currently receive 70 percent of their supplies through Pakistan.

Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani defended the government Thursday and denied having any such deal with the US.

Meanwhile, opposition parties have stepped up their criticism. Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the leader of Pakistan's largest religious party, the Jamat-e-Islami, said after the latest attack that his party would launch a series of countrywide demonstrations and "ask the people to create hurdles in the way of supplies for NATO" if the airstrikes didn't stop.

Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan, a leading opposition figure from former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, accused the government of operating "just like the Musharraf regime" and demanded that the issue of border violations be taken to the United Nations Security Council.

"Even if there is a deal" that allows US forces to launch attacks inside Pakistan, "it is irrelevant now considering the protests the government is facing," says Mr. Rizvi. The government, he says, "will have to do something to calm these fears."

Last month, the legislature met in Islamabad to work out a platform for fighting the increasingly menacing militancy. The session ended with a unanimous resolution calling for an "urgent review" of national security strategy as a key ally in the US-led war on terror.

But the government's hands are tied by its recent past, says Mr. Abbasi. The Pakistan Peoples Party, which heads the government, came to power with the help of the US, he continues. Late last year, it helped negotiate the return of its leader, ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, from exile. Though she was assassinated soon afterward, her popularity helped the PPP win elections early this year.

Now it is having to pay back the US for the favor, Abbasi says. "What they don't realize is that in this payback, not only are they doing serious damage to the country, but also some irreparable damage to their own legitimacy."

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