By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
KABUL, Sept. 16 -- The United States' top military officer flew unexpectedly into Pakistan on Tuesday night to meet with senior officials amid a tense confrontation between the two allies over recent U.S. military incursions into Pakistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists.
The unannounced visit by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came hours after a spokesman for Pakistan's army was reported as saying that the country's soldiers had orders to "open fire" if U.S. forces attempt a cross-border raid similar to a Sept. 3 commando operation in which about 20 people were killed.
Lt. Col. Gary Tallman, a spokesman for Mullen, said the admiral would focus "on working more closely with the Pakistani military to improve coordination and effectiveness in operations against extremist safe havens in the border regions." It is Mullen's fifth visit to Pakistan since he became chairman nearly a year ago; he plans to meet Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani.
The U.S. raids have embarrassed and angered Pakistan's military, and stirred widespread public outcry. The reported comments by Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas underlined the tensions.
"The orders are clear," Abbas was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. "In case it happens again in this form, that there is very significant detection, where it is very definite, no ambiguity across the board, on the ground or in the air: open fire."
The Sept. 3 raid, which followed a series of U.S. airstrikes by unmanned Predator planes, was the first known incursion into Pakistan by U.S. ground forces. The commandos flew by helicopter into the South Waziristan tribal region and attacked a compound thought to harbor several key Islamist extremist figures. The successive attacks have killed dozens, including many civilians.
Kiyani has protested the U.S. actions, warning that his country's sovereignty would be "defended at all cost," and asked his American counterparts to "please look at the public reaction to this kind of adventure and incursion."
Privately, Pakistani analysts said they did not expect Pakistani troops to shoot at U.S. forces, with whom they have been closely -- if uneasily -- allied against Islamist extremists since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Moreover, Pakistan's military has received roughly $6 billion in U.S. aid during that time.
Pakistani officials said Tuesday night that Abbas had been misquoted. A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said late Tuesday that Pakistan would "correct the record" and that the United States enjoyed "good cooperation with Pakistan on the border," the AP reported.
The incident has brought into focus the conflicting agendas and mutual frustrations that have plagued the U.S.-Pakistan military partnership since inception.
Concern also has intensified in Washington and other capitals over whether Pakistan, a nuclear power that is experiencing increasing violence by Islamist extremists, will remain a firm ally under the civilian leadership that this year replaced longtime military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
As Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have gained strength and influence, staging hundreds of attacks against military and civilian targets this year and taking control of many rural areas, U.S. officials have increasingly sought to deny them safe haven among like-minded militants in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Pakistan's army recently launched a series of large operations against Islamist militants in some tribal areas, but only after a long period of halfhearted or failed actions that have frustrated U.S. officials. At the same time, Pakistani officials have insisted that no foreign troops enter their sovereign territory. So the U.S. raids this month have put them in an awkward position.
"Every country has certain red lines. The army wants to have good relations with the U.S., but it cannot tolerate operations on its turf," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, speaking from Islamabad. "These American operations have caused a lot of collateral damage. . . . Some Pakistanis think the Americans may want to stabilize Afghanistan at the cost of destabilizing Pakistan."
Although Pakistani officials routinely declare support for the war against Islamist militants, they are keenly aware that public support for it in their country is deeply ambivalent and that Musharraf was ousted in part because many Pakistanis viewed him as doing America's bidding. The new president, Asif Ali Zardari, has said nothing about the U.S. raids and is increasingly criticized as being too close to Washington.
Some analysts said the new U.S.-Pakistan tensions might undermine what they called the growing success of Pakistani operations against militants.
"The U.S. actions show a lack of confidence in Pakistan, which the army must be very unhappy about, considering their increasingly successful attacks," said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani military scholar based in Washington. "My biggest fear is that people will latch onto this and turn it into a rallying cry against the government. It is a very dangerous moment, and if it is not smoothed over, U.S.-Pakistani relations are headed for a train wreck."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson at the Pentagon contributed to this report.