Pakistan tested by battles with Al Qaeda, Taliban

The US pursuit of Al Qaeda with airstrikes complicates Pakistan's struggle against the Taliban, who launched their largest attack in months over the weekend.

Mian Khursheed/Reuters
New ties: Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani met with Vice President-elect Joe Biden in Islamabad Friday.

US military officials said over the weekend that a Jan. 1 drone aircraft strike in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area killed two senior Al Qaeda operatives.

But the continuing strikes inside Pakistan are doing little good in the war on terror, many observers here charge – or for a Pakistani government that is trying to sell it as "Pakistan's own war" rather than an American imposition, which is the popular perception.

Pakistan's government also maintains that such air strikes are strengthening the cause of the Taliban militancy at home.

"There are two battles going on here," says Ikram Sehgal a former major in the Pakistan Army and the publisher of the Defence Journal in Karachi. One involves the American search for Al Qaeda operatives hiding in the tribal areas, he says. The other is the Pakistan military's fight against the Taliban Movement of Pakistan that has taken root in the northwestern regions of the country.

Though the two have "linkages," they are "two separate wars," says Mr. Sehgal.

The Americans, Sehgal says, are launching drone attacks with the expectation that they will weaken Al Qaeda command structures in Pakistan. But the strikes also "are definitely making the job a lot more difficult for the Pakistanis," by giving the Taliban a rallying cry, he says.

Yesterday, at least six Pakistani soldiers were reported dead when hundreds of militants, in one of their largest attacks in months, struck checkpoints in the Mohmand Agency in the tribal belt. Mohmand Agency, which borders Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, is the newest battleground in the struggle between the Army and a mixture of tribal and Taliban militants for control of the swath of land along the Afghan border.

Security forces said they drove back the militants, who attacked from the direction of the Afghan border.

The drone attacks on New Year's Day are only the latest in the more than two dozen similar strikes, carried out since August 2008, which have killed more than 200 people, according to Agence France-Presse. The targets were the head of Al Qaeda in Pakistan and his deputy, both Kenyans and both wanted by the FBI for the bombings of the American embassies in Africa in 1998.

"We hear these claims every few months and there's rarely ever any follow-up," says Khalid Rahman at the Institute for Policy Studies, who also says he is skeptical of the authenticity of military claims from the tribal areas. According to military reports, a similar drone attack in November killed the alleged Al Qaeda mastermind of a 2006 airplane bombing plot, as well as an Egyptian Al Qaeda operative.

For many Pakistanis, says Mr. Rahman, such news is "pointless" considering the worsening militancy at home. "Unless we see actual gains, how can we keep supporting American airstrikes?" he asks.

The news of the latest Al Qaeda casualties came the day that Vice President-elect Senator Joe Biden arrived in Pakistan. Local media also reported that the Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani raised the issue of drone attacks with Mr. Biden.

In November last year the Pakistani prime minister had expressed hope that the new US administration would reconsider its tactics. "I am sure when the government of Senator Obama is set up, these attacks will be controlled," he told lawmakers referring to the drone attacks.

Government officials have consistently condemned American drone attacks at home but done little more than lodge occasional complaints with the Americans. This has led to wide speculation that there is an unofficial understanding between the two governments that allows drone attacks to continue.

But former President Pervez Musharraf, under whose rule these air incursions into Pakistan began, said this weekend that there was never any such understanding between Pakistan and the US in his rule.

"Pakistan has done more than anyone else in the war against terror," he said before boarding a plane on his way to the United States. "The United States should not ask us to do more," he said.

"If the Americans could start focusing more on ways to help Pakistan fight the Pakistani Taliban," the larger fight against militancy and terrorism in the region might be more successful, says Hassan Askari Rizvi, former professor of Pakistan Studies at Columbia University in New York.

Besides better cooperation with the Pakistanis, Mr. Rizvi says the American forces being deployed to Afghanistan next month should also be used to help seal the Afghan border.

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