An unmanned US predator drone killed a top Al Qaeda operative Monday inside Pakistan's tribal belt, even as Pakistan's newly elected prime minister made his first visit to Washington to discuss the war on terrorists with President Bush. The timing of the two events suggests that, as Pakistan's government struggles to form a coherent counter-terrorism strategy, the Bush administration is determined to take matters into its own hands.
Monday's strike is said to have targeted one of Al Qaeda's top weapon makers, an Egyptian national, according to the Dawn, a leading Pakistani English-language newspaper.
A missile apparently fired from a Predator drone killed at least six people on Monday in a compound in South Waziristan, near the Afghan border.
A security official said the strike might have killed a senior Al Qaeda trainer known for his expertise in chemicals. The official put the death toll at 12.
"Our report suggests that the missile strike might have killed Abu Khabab Al Misri. But it remains unconfirmed," the official cautioned.
The 55-year-old Midhat Mursi As-Sayid Umar alias Abu Khabab was earlier reported to have been killed in a US missile strike in Bajaur's Damadola area in Jan 2006. However, later reports showed that he was not among those killed.
In the past, Pakistani authorities have sometimes aided in or carried out the reported capture or killing of a senior Islamic militant at around the time of such meetings.
But another, senior American official said that, in this case, the strike was a "strictly unilateral" one by the U.S. without any assistance from Pakistan. It was merely coincidental that it overlapped with Gillani's visit, the official said.
If true, the US's willingness to take unilateral action is part of a growing pattern that is causing a rift between Pakistani and American officials, reports The Daily Times, another Pakistani newspaper.
Repeated United States missile strikes in Pakistan can harm relations between the two countries, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Tariq Majid told a visiting US commander on Monday. "Expressing concern over repeated cross-border missile attacks/firing by coalition and Afghan forces, General Tariq said that our sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected," an [Inter-Services Public Relations] statement quoted Tariq as telling Acting CENTCOM chief Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey. "Any violation in this regard could be detrimental to bilateral relations," it added.
The strike came as Mr. Bush met for the first time with Pakistan's new Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. Pakistan's civilian government, which was elected in February through democratic elections, has struggled in its first 100 days of office to form a counter-terrorism strategy that appeases both its citizens and the West, according to an opinion piece in The Daily Times.
[The elected governments in Islamabad and Peshawar] are going through a learning process and their socialisation with the realities of world politics and a comprehension of the security situation on the border may take some time. It is difficult to say whether they will stick to the template they inherited from Pervez Musharraf or redefine Pakistan's strategic partnership with US.
"What we have is a government in which there is still no consensus" on how to deal with the militants, says Ansar Abbasi, an editor with The News, a national English daily. "The new government couldn't possibly have followed [President Pervez] Musharraf's game plan," he says, so it is now simultaneously offering the olive branch and wielding the stick....
The Army ... is not being given clear instructions or a mandate from the government, which seems to lack direction in the face of a multifaceted challenge.
For now, the government has taken the controversial tack of negotiating with Taliban militants who reside on the country's border with Afghanistan. But Washington says that negotiations have allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup, The New York Times reports.
Senior American officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just three days ago, publicly scolded Pakistan for not doing more to root out safe havens like the one bombed on Monday in Azam Warsak, a village in South Waziristan near the Afghan border.
Last week, The New York Times also reported that many in Pakistan fear that the Predator drone attacks are a prelude to a large, unilateral attack.
Strong suggestions by the United States that it could resort to unilateral intervention against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan are generating increasing anxiety in the Pakistani press and among government officials, who warn that such an action could backfire.
Over the last week, the Pakistani press has been filled with commentaries warning that American attacks without Pakistan's permission would further inflame anti-American sentiment, drive more people into the camp of the militants and fatally undermine the already fragile civilian government. Privately, one senior government official said American strikes would produce "chaos."
During meetings between the two leaders, Gilani secured a pledge from Bush to respect Pakistan's sovereignty, in exchange for promises from Islamabad to increase efforts against insurgents.
But the Post adds that:
Later, in an interview with CNN Gilani was asked whether the missile strike was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. "Certainly," he said, adding, "There should be more cooperation on the intelligence side, so that when there is a credible and actionable information given to us, we will hit ourselves."
The Christian Science Monitor reported on Friday that the outcome of Gilani's visit would be critical.
The visit by Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to the White House Monday will set the course of what will be one of the United States' most critical and complex bilateral relationships in the coming years.
But Mr. Gilani's visit also has an aura of urgency in Washington – a sense that Pakistan and its relationship with the US cannot simply coast through the final six months of the Bush presidency. The prime minister's hold on power since the February elections that swept him into office is fragile, and deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan are focusing increased attention on the Pakistan factor in the war there.