KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistan’s defense minister has said that the country might withdraw thousands of troops from its volatile border areas in response to a suspension of U.S. military aid, a move that would undermine Washington’s interests in a region that is home to al-Qaeda and a stew of other Islamist militant groups.
In an interview that aired Tuesday on a private Pakistani television station, Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar contradicted statements earlier in the day by the nation’s powerful military, which said forces would continue counterterrorism operations despite a decision by the Obama administration to delay $800 million in promised aid and reimbursements. Although the reason for the inconsistency was unclear, Mukhtar’s comments are a sign that Pakistan is likely to react to the U.S. decision with greater defiance rather than cooperation.
“We cannot afford to keep our military out in the mountains for such a long period of time,” said Mukhtar, a member of the civilian government, which is viewed as subordinate to the military.
A Pakistani army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on Mukhtar’s statement.
Early Wednesday, the Associated Press, citing a Pakistan army spokesman, reported that the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency was on his way to Washington. The spokesman did not give details of Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha’s trip.
After a meeting Tuesday, Pakistan’s top generals released a statement saying they had resolved to “fight the menace of terrorism in our own national interest using our own resources.”
White House officials said Sunday that the United States, which has provided billions of dollars in military aid and reimbursements to Pakistan over the past decade, was withholding about one-third of this year’s payments to express discontent over poor security cooperation. Bilateral strains have intensified in the months leading up to and after the U.S. raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison city and prompted many in Washington to question whether the al-Qaeda leader had official support.
In a development likely to exacerbate tensions, the CIA this week continued its controversial drone campaign in Pakistan’s remote tribal belt, killing more than 50 suspected militants in North and South Waziristan in four strikes starting Monday night, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and residents in the area. Pakistani officials tacitly approve the strikes, but their support has grown warier amid public anger and the widening bilateral rift.
Some of the suspended U.S. military assistance had gone toward training a ragtag Pakistani paramilitary force that patrols the mountainous border region, through which militants slip easily into Afghanistan. Pakistan recently canceled more than 100 visas for U.S. Special Operations trainers working with that force, a move that U.S. officials cited as a reason for withholding aid. Mukhtar said that up to 15 soldiers at each of 1,100 border checkpoints might have to be withdrawn.
On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. aid suspension was “not a shift in policy but underscores the fact that the partnership with Pakistan depends on cooperation.”
But distrust of the United States is pervasive in both Pakistan’s society and its military, and Pakistani analysts said the U.S. aid decision was likely to deepen it. Abbas said Monday that Pakistan did not need “external support,” but he and other military officials suggested that they could seek assistance from China — a country Pakistan views as an all-weather friend that, in contrast to Washington, refrains from demands or critiques.
“The majority in Pakistan and also many in the ranks of the military are angry at Washington,” a Pakistani military official said. He added that Pakistan and China are discussing air and naval projects. “This, in turn, will put pressure on the government and military to review and reassess the counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S.”
Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.