US risks overplaying hand with Pakistan strikes

ANALYSIS - US risks overplaying hand with Pakistan strikes
By Randall Mikkelsen, Reuters, October 30, 2008

WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - U.S. strikes at militants in Pakistan are stoking Islamabad's anger at a time analysts say the two countries must work more closely to fight militants in the region along the border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan's government summoned U.S. Ambassador Anne Peterson on Wednesday to protest missile strikes by pilotless aircraft in the border region. The protest came two days after a suspected U.S. drone fired missiles that killed up to 20 militants in that area.

"It was emphasized that such attacks were a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and should be stopped immediately," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Islamabad.

The United States has shrugged off previous Pakistani protests, including over a raid by U.S. ground troops last month. It says the attacks are needed to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan and kill Taliban and al Qaeda militants who threaten them.

But the Bush administration may have overplayed its hand by keeping up the attacks after elected President Asif Ali Zardari replaced resigned former U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf in September, analysts said.

"It is clear that the Bush-Musharraf strategy ... has only aggravated the crisis and the Taliban are in a stronger position today than before," said Hassan Abbas, a Harvard University researcher and former Pakistani legal official.

"Some major rethinking is in order," he said.

Said Thomas Houlahan, an analyst at the Center for Security and Science think tank: "If we had a plan to permanently alienate Pakistan, it couldn't be better than this."

The raids fuel an already high level of anti-American sentiment among the Pakistani public, which in turn puts pressure on the fledgling government.

"Washington D.C. needs to realize that the Musharraf era is over and the new democratic government needs public support for its actions," Abbas said.


Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, criticized what he called "impatient decision-makers" in Washington and said unilateral strikes are counterproductive.

"The new government does not need legitimacy through the war against terror. Its legitimacy comes from the vote it received from the people of Pakistan. Therefore, the new government has a different policy and a different outlook toward the war against terror," Haqqani said on PBS television's "Frontline" show Tuesday.

Pakistan is strategically essential to the United States, and provides key logistics routes into Afghanistan.

The government has little leverage to enforce its demands that the United States curb its attacks. Washington provides billions of dollars in economic assistance and the global financial crisis has hit Pakistan hard.

Nevertheless, greater communication between the two countries would help ease mistrust, analysts said.

"If they (cross-border attacks) are coordinated between the two sides, I think the government would understand and they would not be in a position where they are taken by surprise," former Pakistan Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said at the U.S. Institute of Peace this month.

The White House has promised this in the past, saying it was working to increase coordination. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, assured Pakistan in September it would respect Pakistan's sovereignty.

But that was followed by the ground raid, prompting Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood to complain of a U.S. "institutional disconnect."

Washington also needs to better reduce and apologize for civilian casualties caused by the strikes, said Karin Von Hillel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Both candidates to succeed President George W. Bush, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, have indicated they would be willing to order strikes against militant leaders in Pakistan. Obama said the United States might have to act alone, while McCain emphasized working with the Pakistan government.

Obama has also called for a stronger relationship. "There is no alternative but to work with Pakistan," said Obama adviser John Brennan, who has held several senior intelligence positions. (Additional reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Doina Chiacu)


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