U.S. Airstrikes Creating Tension, Pakistan Warns

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 3 -- Pakistan's defense minister cautioned the newly appointed head of the U.S. Central Command on Monday that launching further missile strikes in the country's troubled tribal areas could increase tensions between the two nations.

Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar issued the blunt warning to Gen. David H. Petraeus during his first official visit to Pakistan after taking over command last week of U.S. military strategy in a region that includes Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. Mukhtar, who also called for more coordination between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries, said the recent increase in U.S.-led cross-border strikes had created "bad blood" between the two allies. On Friday, 27 people were killed in two U.S. airstrikes in northwest Pakistan.

The Pakistani Defense Ministry said in a statement released shortly after the meeting that frequent attacks inside Pakistan by U.S. Predator drones "could generate anti-American sentiments" and "create outrage and uproar" among Pakistanis.

Petraeus, who took charge of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on Friday, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher, met with Mukhtar and Pakistan's top military officer, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. It was part of the first leg of a tour that is expected to soon include a visit to Afghanistan.

Petraeus was also expected to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and several other government officials, although a U.S. State Department spokesman in Islamabad said he could not confirm the meeting with Zardari. The spokesman declined to comment on Petraeus's talks with Pakistani officials.

The visit comes after sharp diplomatic clashes between American and Pakistani officials over U.S. military action in Pakistani territory in recent months. At least 100 people have been killed in 17 U.S.-led strikes in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, including at least 15 in a cross-border ground raid Sept. 3. Pakistani officials protested the strikes, saying they are counterproductive.

U.S. officials have remained mum about the airstrikes. But as the U.S.-led military effort in Afghanistan suffered several setbacks this year, the United States has become more insistent that Pakistan quell the flow of insurgents into Afghanistan. Petraeus and U.S. officials have repeatedly pointed to Pakistan's tribal areas as safe havens for top Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders.

With casualties at record highs among foreign troops in Afghanistan, and security in decline in Kabul, the capital, and across the country, Petraeus's efforts to resuscitate the flagging military mission there will be as closely watched by Pakistan as they are by the United States.

More than 1,200 Pakistani troops have been killed in fighting in the country's volatile border region since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. Although the Pakistani military has recently stepped up efforts to quell the insurgency in and around the tribal areas, U.S. officials have said they are only "cautiously optimistic" that Pakistan's strategy will work.

Petraeus, who oversaw a surge of U.S. troops in Iraq and a sharp downturn in violence there, has advocated increasing the 33,000-strong U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, He has also indicated backing for efforts to turn moderate Islamist insurgents into supporters of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Under Petraeus's command in Baghdad, a similar attempt to arm and organize disaffected Iraqi tribal leaders in western Anbar province won U.S. troops a much-needed reprieve in battling insurgents there.

In an echo of that strategy, Pakistani officials have begun to arm tribal militias in the largely lawless northwest and encourage them to fight pro-Taliban insurgents. But skepticism remains because the tactic has been tried before with little success.

A similar idea has been proposed in Afghanistan. However, some NATO officials have expressed doubts that the approach would be easily grafted onto the war there. On Saturday, Maj. Gen. Marc Lessard, the outgoing Canadian chief of NATO's command in southern Afghanistan, cautioned that efforts to arm locals against insurgents might be complicated by intricate family and tribal ties unique to the region.

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