Reuters : U.S. visit feeds Pakistani worry over U.S. attack

Sunday, July 13, 2008

U.S. visit feeds Pakistani worry over U.S. attack

By Robert Birsel | July 13, 2008

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, visited Pakistan on the weekend, fueling speculation that the United States was about to take action against militants in northwest Pakistan.

Pakistan has been a close U.S. ally in the global campaign against terrorism but the United States has become increasingly frustrated at what it sees as insufficient effort by Islamabad to fight militants on the Afghan border.

A U.S. embassy spokeswoman confirmed that Mullen had made a one-day trip to Pakistan on Saturday, but said she had no details about his meetings. Pakistani military and government spokesmen were not available for comment.

Pakistani newspapers said Mullen, in talks with Pakistani military commanders and leaders of a new government, had expressed deep frustration with growing cross-border militant attacks and had called for decisive action to stop it.

"Sources quoted Mullen as complaining that militants were moving across the border with greater liberty now than during the previous government," the Dawn newspaper said.

Pakistan's semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun tribal belt on the border has became a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants fighting Western soldiers in Afghanistan and against security forces in Pakistan where 15 soldiers were killed on Saturday.

The U.S. Pentagon said last month insurgent havens in Pakistan were the biggest threat to Afghan security.

Pakistan has ruled out allowing foreign troops onto its soil although U.S. pilotless drones have been increasing their flights, and attacks, over the Pakistani side of the border.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi sought in talks in Washington on Friday to assure the United States his country was doing all it could to fight militants on the border.


What Pakistanis see as a more aggressive U.S. action on the border has fueled speculation of a U.S. thrust.

Last month, 11 Pakistani border soldiers were killed in a U.S. air strike as U.S. forces battled Taliban militants.

On Saturday, Pakistan lodged a protest with the United States over fire from Afghanistan on Thursday that wounded six Pakistani soldiers. Afghanistan's NATO force blamed militants for the fire saying they were trying to "spark a border incident".

Feeding the worry, some U.S. politicians, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, have said the United States could attack al Qaeda inside Pakistan without Pakistani approval.

A new government took power after President Pervez Musharraf's allies were defeated in February elections, vowing to negotiate an end to violence, but U.S. commanders in Afghanistan say such peace efforts have led to more militant attacks there.

Many Pakistanis oppose the U.S. campaign against militancy and blame Musharraf's cooperation with the United States for inciting violence. Any U.S. action in Pakistan would only exacerbate the problem, they say.

The News newspaper said Mullen was accompanied by officials of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency: "Apparently the Americans were quite aggressive in their claims," it said.

NATO commanders in Afghanistan have said there mandate goes only as far as the border and their troops would go no further but such statements have done little to dampen speculation of a

U.S. attack into Pakistan.

"Newspapers keep reporting this but there is an understanding between the government of Pakistan and the NATO and U.S. forces which I don't think the U.S. would violate," said a senior Pakistani official, who declined to be identified.

But an analyst said limited U.S. strikes were possible.

"I would not say that they would come with full ground forces because they understand that would be a great folly," said security analyst and retired general Talat Masood.

"But it is possible that if they find that there is a cluster of militants which has to be dealt with, they might land some commandos," he said.

(Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony; Editing by David Fox)

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