By Candace Rondeaux and Shaiq Hussain
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 13, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 12 -- At least 12 people were killed in northwest Pakistan on Friday in a suspected U.S. airstrike that Pakistani intelligence officials and experts said could aggravate tensions with the United States over military operations in the region.
A U.S. Predator drone fired two missiles at a house in Tolkhel village in the tribal area of North Waziristan, near the border of Afghanistan, at around 5:30 a.m., according to Ikram Khan, a resident who said he witnessed the attack from the nearby town of Miranshah.
As the war in Afghanistan nears the end of its seventh year, with record U.S. casualties, the U.S. military has stepped up its operations in the lawless tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan, where entrenched Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters threaten U.S. and coalition troops across the border.
President Bush signed an order in July authorizing new rules of engagement that allow ground attacks inside Pakistan. But U.S. and Pakistani officials have publicly and privately disavowed claims that Pakistan has agreed to the change in tactics.
The recent spate of U.S. strikes, at least one of them apparently under the new rules, has provoked sharp condemnation from top Pakistani government and military officials. Some Pakistanis say the United States is targeting Taliban commanders who have in fact agreed to stand down.
At the same time, several intelligence experts and officials said that the public rancor from the Pakistani military and government is in part an effort to seek political cover for a policy that is deeply unpopular with vast numbers of Pakistanis, at a time when anti-American sentiment is high.
Some experts here say the situation could fuel the insurgency in Pakistan and jeopardize the already fragile alliance between the United States and Pakistan.
"If bombs were to fall in Karachi and Islamabad, that would then be considered an act of war. The Pakistani government wants to pretend that these areas are not part of Pakistan, but they are," said retired Gen. Hamid Gul, former director of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). "Instead of solving the problem, it has only exacerbated it. If those people in those areas were not part of the Taliban forces before these strikes, they will be now."
Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the Pakistani army's chief of staff, was informed last month by senior U.S. defense officials that if Pakistan failed to stem the flow of Taliban and other fighters into Afghanistan, the United States would adopt a new strategy of allowing ground strikes on insurgent encampments. A senior Pakistani official said that Kiyani believed the strategy was still under discussion.
Early this week, the Pakistani army chief expressed outrage at the recent cross-border attacks, saying that Pakistan's military will defend its borders against foreign forces "at all cost."
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, said Friday that retaliatory strikes by Pakistani security forces against U.S. troops found operating inside Pakistan's border are "possible" and that Pakistani troops "have a right of self-defense."
This year, the U.S. military has launched nearly a dozen airstrikes on Pakistani territory, killing several key al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders as well as many civilians. The strikes became notably more frequent after the July order was signed by Bush.
Last week, helicopter-borne U.S. commandos crossed from Afghanistan 20 miles into Pakistan to launch a ground assault on a compound in the tribal area of South Waziristan. The United States launched a separate airstrike the next day in North Waziristan.
But it was a Sept. 8 attack on a religious school run by top Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani in the town of Dande Darpakhel in the tribal area of North Waziristan that appears to have provoked the most ire over the new U.S. policy. A Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the strikes have genuinely angered some Pakistani military officials and have raised suspicions among rank-and-file soldiers that public protests by the government are empty rhetoric.
While there is general agreement within the military that the United States should be allowed to strike legitimate targets in Pakistan's tribal areas, there is little agreement on what constitutes a "legitimate target," the intelligence official said.
The intelligence official said many in Pakistan's clandestine ISI believe that Haqqani, who received support from the Pakistani agency and the CIA during the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, had provided intelligence officials with valuable information about other Taliban networks that had been attacking Pakistani security targets.
The Sept. 3 ground assault on an area of South Waziristan controlled by Taliban leader Mullah Nazir was viewed similarly by some in Pakistan's intelligence community as counterproductive because Nazir had publicly agreed to restrain his fighters from attacking government targets within Pakistan.
The Pakistani intelligence official said strikes on "good Taliban" commanders such as Nazir and Haqqani could backfire by provoking more aggressive covert support from Pakistan's intelligence community for the Islamist insurgents whom Afghan and U.S. officials call the top threats.
Gul, the former intelligence director, faulted the new approach.
"What difference does it make if a Taliban chief is killed? Americans still have to pay taxes. They still have to send their sons, husbands and fathers off to be killed in a war that is not likely to be won by military force alone," Gul said. "And Americans will only face more attacks on their own soil because of these strikes."
The drone that attacked on Friday was seen flying about a mile from Tolkhel village for several minutes before firing missiles at the house of a resident named Shadam Khan and a nearby school building, according to Ikram Khan, the witness.
He said that several local Taliban members had recently taken shelter in the school but that Shadam Khan was not believed to have any ties to the militant group.
Ikram Khan and other residents said that six of those killed were women and children; the others were Taliban fighters.
A Pakistani security official in Miranshah, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to make public comments, confirmed details of the attack. He said that several people were also injured and taken to a local hospital.