Cross-Border Incursions Threaten US-Pakistan Rift
Under political pressure at home, civilian leaders in Islamabad are warning that strikes on Pakistan’s soil are putting democracy at risk. They won some support Tuesday from Britain, which has the largest troop contingent in Afghanistan after the U.S.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen flew in Tuesday from Kabul for talks with army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who last week caused a stir by pledging to defend Pakistan’s sovereignty “at all cost.”
Those comments followed stepped-up missile strikes and an incident on Sept. 3 in which helicopter-borne U.S. commandos carried out an attack on an alleged militant target in Pakistan’s tribal belt. The government said at least 15 people were killed in the raid.
The Associated Press reported that army spokesman Maj.-Gen. Athar Abbas in an interview Tuesday said that while Pakistan had formerly been tolerant of coalition forces crossing a short way into its territory, “after the [Sept. 3] incident, the orders are clear.”
“In case it happens again in this form, that there is a very significant detection, which is very definite, no ambiguity, across the border, on ground or in the air: open fire,” it quoted him as saying.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters that the Pakistan government was expected to clarify what he called an “out of context” statement. Whitman described Islamabad as a U.S. ally and said American forces “enjoy good cooperation with Pakistan” along the border with Afghanistan.
Abbas later Tuesday backed away from his reported comments, telling Pakistan’s Daily Times that there had been no change in policy and that “no new orders” had been issued to commanders.
But he reaffirmed the army policy, saying, “We reserve the right to defend our people in case of any offensive or cross-border incursion and we reserve the right to respond.”
Violence in Afghanistan this year has been the worst since U.S.-led forces toppled the al-Qaeda-allied Taliban militia after 9/11. The U.S. and Afghan governments attribute the resurgence in part to poor security along the mountainous Afghan-Pakistan border.
Short-lived peace deals negotiated between Pakistani authorities and local Taliban militants in the tribal belt and adjoining North-West Frontier Province have also played a role by facilitating safe havens for terrorists, they say.
The Pakistan government insists it is doing its best to curb the militancy, pointing to military operations that have killed hundreds of militants in the tribal zone over the past six weeks.
Reports citing U.S. officials as saying that President Bush in July approved cross-border ground operations have raised tensions with Islamabad.
Mullen, who also was expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, is on his fifth visit to Pakistan since he assumed his post less than a year ago. It comes just weeks after he held talks with Kayani onboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean.
The border tensions have increased political pressure on Pakistan’s newly-elected president, Asif Ali Zardari.
The opposition Pakistan Muslim League of former prime minister and Zardari rival Nawaz Sharif says Pakistan should not tolerate foreign incursions onto its soil, with some lawmakers suggesting the country should withdraw from the counter-terror partnership with the U.S. if cross-border raids continue.
Qazi Hussain Ahmad, head of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, has been urging the government to retaliate, saying that his party does “not want war with America but defending national security and sovereignty should be our foremost duty.”
Gilani said the new president would raise the territorial sovereignty issue with Bush when he travels to New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly session next week.
“The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country would be safeguarded at all cost,” Gilani said in a statement Tuesday.
On a visit to London Tuesday, Zardari sought support from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, saying U.S. strikes inside Pakistan would harm democracy.
Although a joint statement issued by the two after the meeting noted “a particularly acute problem with extremism emanating from the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region,” it did not specifically mention cross-border incursions.
In Islamabad, Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told visiting British Justice Secretary Jack Straw that violations of Pakistan’s territory were “counterproductive and extremely unhelpful in our efforts towards tackling militants,” according to a foreign ministry statement.
Straw told the BBC later that military operations along the border must be carried out “in a way that is not counterproductive.”
“We believe that these matters have to be subject to consent of the Pakistan government because Pakistan is a sovereign nation,” he said.