By Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 11:20 PM
KABUL - CIA Director Leon Panetta met in Islamabad with Pakistan's intelligence chief Wednesday amid a month-long escalation in U.S. air attacks against insurgent strongholds and new reports of Pakistan-based terror plots against the West.
The attacks have added to political tension in Pakistan, where the fragile civilian government is staggering under domestic criticism of its response to floods that have left millions homeless and threats by the Supreme Court to reopen corruption cases against high-level officials.
U.S. and Pakistani officials dismissed speculation that the military, which has ruled Pakistan for much of its 63-year history, is contemplating a takeover. "We don't have the appetite, the resources or the intent to meddle in politics," a Pakistani military official said. "In our past experience, it hasn't worked. It only worsens the situation further."
But Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani army, bluntly stated military concerns during a meeting Monday with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, according to several military officials. Kiyani "conveyed a plain message to the civilian leadership in their recent meeting that it must put its house in order," a senior Pakistani security official said, and he forcefully demanded that the government crack down on corruption, take control of the plummeting economy and improve its faltering response to the flood disaster.
The Obama administration views stability in Pakistan as key to its success in Afghanistan and has provided a multibillion-dollar aid package to help the elected government, along with training, equipment and other assistance to the Pakistani military. Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants plan and carry out strikes against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from hideouts in Pakistan's mountainous northwest.
A CIA spokeswoman said the agency had no comment on Panetta's visit or his meeting with Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
The dilemma for U.S. policymakers is that their hopes of gaining political traction in Pakistan, and increased Pakistani military cooperation against insurgents, are undercut by the highly unpopular air attacks inside Pakistani territory.
This month, the CIA dramatically escalated strikes into Pakistan from unmanned drone aircraft, targeting al-Qaeda sanctuaries, as well as the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network that fight inside Afghanistan. U.S. officials said the attacks were at least partially in response to nonspecific intelligence reports of planning within the border sanctuaries for terrorist attacks on Europe and the United States.
In a separate incident, U.S. attack helicopters last weekend crossed into Pakistan in response to Taliban fire across the border at U.S. positions in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials privately described such attacks as self-defense operations that are authorized under a private understanding with the Pakistani government.
But Pakistani officials have publicly insisted that they violate bilateral agreements and the international force mandate in Afghanistan.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday that he had "clarified" the weekend's events in a telephone conversation with Kiyani and that they arrived at a "decent understanding" of what had happened.
Meanwhile, insurgents have tried to capitalize on the political upheaval.
In a video released Wednesday, a U.S.-born al-Qaeda spokesman criticized Zardari, the military and the Pakistani government, saying their response to the floods shows that they do not care for the poor. Adam Gadahn, the spokesman, urged Pakistani Muslims to support Islamist insurgents.
Talk of coups and government collapse is common in Pakistan, which Zardari's administration has led since 2008, and the onslaught of problems has alarmed observers and government officials. Gillani canceled a planned trip to Europe this weekend because of "his preoccupation with the post-flood situation," a government statement said.
Anger over the behavior of the ruling elite has swelled. During the floods, influential landowners were accused of flooding poor people's land to save their own, and Zardari was criticized for visiting his family's chateau in France during the crisis.
International aid agencies say millions of Pakistani flood victims remain homeless and awaiting government aid. The flooding ravaged an already dysfunctional economy, inflation is spiraling upward, and growth predictions for the coming year have dropped from 4.1 percent to 2.5 percent.
"The government chooses to rule by inaction," the English-language newspaper Dawn wrote in an editorial Wednesday. "Almost certainly, the abject governance record of the present civilian leadership has helped foment the atmosphere of crisis."
With the government muddling its response to the disaster, the army's image has risen, as its helicopters deliver aid to flood victims and soldiers rebuild bridges. According to Pakistani media reports and some officials, Kiyani and other top military commanders have grown increasingly concerned that the government is incapable of managing reconstruction or potential unrest.
But "it's not as if somebody is just waiting to come in and take over," said S. Akbar Zaidi, a visiting professor at Columbia University and visiting scholar in the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Even as the military has shunned the task of governing, the top opposition leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has indicated that he prefers to wait until elections in 2013 to challenge Zardari's Pakistan People's Party.
"My question is, who in the hell would want to take over Pakistan at this stage and get their reputation destroyed?" Zaidi said.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Craig Whitlock in Washington and special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.