U.S. Strike Reported as Mullen Consults Pakistanis

By Pamela Constable and Shaiq Hussain
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 18, 2008

KABUL, Sept. 17 -- A new reported U.S. missile strike inside Pakistan on Wednesday threatened to undermine American efforts to defuse a growing confrontation with Pakistan over aggressive U.S. military actions against Islamist extremists in the country's turbulent northwest border region.

The strike in the South Waziristan tribal area, which officials said killed six people, came as the United States' top military officer pledged during a hastily arranged visit to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, that Washington would respect that nation's sovereignty. He did not specifically rule out further raids, however.

According to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pakistani officials that he "appreciated the positive role Pakistan is playing in the war on terror" and "reiterated the U.S. commitment to respect Pakistan's sovereignty" and to develop further bilateral cooperation on critical security issues.

Pakistan and the United States have cooperated closely in fighting Islamist extremists since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Pakistan has been far more willing to hunt down alleged foreign al-Qaeda terrorists than to attack homegrown Islamist groups. The Pakistani military has long tacitly condoned strikes by U.S. Predator drones in the tribal region -- Wednesday's attack appeared to be another of those operations -- but the Pakistani public and many politicians are deeply against them at a time when the military's influence in the country appears to have declined.

Two weeks ago, the United States escalated its cross-border campaign by staging the first known ground attack inside Pakistan, a strike 20 miles over the border by helicopter-borne commandos. That caused a public furor and led the Pakistani military to protest as well.

On Wednesday, even before word spread of the new U.S. strike, senior Pakistani military and civilian officials stressed that no further cross-border incursions by foreign forces would be tolerated, though they stopped short of repeating a military spokesman's statement Tuesday that any future raids would be forcibly repelled.

"The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan will be safeguarded at all costs," Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani told the Associated Press of Pakistan after meeting with Mullen.

A military spokesman said Pakistan reserves the right to "retaliate for any aggression" to protect Pakistani lives and territory.

Mullen met privately with both Gillani and Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. The embassy described the talks as "extremely frank, positive and constructive." There were no joint statements or public appearances afterward, and the Joint Chiefs chairman reportedly left Pakistan on Wednesday evening.

The contretemps highlighted the gulf between American and Pakistani priorities, though the two countries remain official allies in the war against international Islamist terrorism.

U.S. military officials are frustrated by what they see as Pakistan's reluctance to aggressively take on Taliban fighters operating from its soil and staging increasingly bold attacks in next-door Afghanistan. In recent months, the Americans have felt increasingly justified in unilaterally pursuing those targets, despite widespread opposition inside Pakistan.

Pakistan, for its part, has been held back by domestic political and religious concerns, including alleged years of close relations between some extremist groups and government intelligence agencies and a growing anti-American sentiment in the Muslim-majority nation of 160 million people. Those feelings have intensified with a recent series of U.S. cross-border raids that have killed numerous civilians as well as fighters.

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