- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. hit back at critics of U.S. policies toward Pakistan Wednesday, saying a sustained partnership between the two nations is vital in defeating al Qaeda and Taliban extremists.

Hours after Mr. Biden spoke in the capital, a suicide car bomber struck a police station and adjoining mosque in the northwest, killing at least 16 people and providing a fresh reminder of America’s challenges in the unstable, nuclear-armed Islamic country.

Reflecting the delicacy of U.S.-Pakistan ties, Mr. Biden did not mention any frustrations in Washington over the Pakistani army’s reluctance to move into a key militant sanctuary along the northwest border with Afghanistan. Public calls by U.S. leaders for Pakistan to “do more” in the fight invariably spark a backlash by its media and leaders.

Mr. Biden’s one-day trip came a week after a security guard with extremist sympathies gunned down a liberal governor from the ruling party. The pro-Washington government also narrowly avoided collapse when it convinced a key coalition partner not to join the opposition last week.

Mr. Biden sought to counter anti-U.S. conspiracy theories commonly heard in Pakistan, saying Washington has not imposed its anti-terror war on Pakistan, does not favor archrival India, does not want to break up the country and is not at war with Islam.

“We are not the enemies of the Islam and we embrace those who practice that great religion in our country,” he said alongside Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Washington has committed to giving Pakistan $7.5 billion in aid in the coming years to improve the lives of ordinary Pakistanis, stabilize the country and show its military and civilian leaders that the U.S. is a long-term friend. The U.S. is also asking Islamabad to step up military efforts against Taliban and al Qaeda militants who use bases in northwest Pakistan to launch attacks on American and NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

“As we embark on this new year, we must in my view, and the president’s, rededicate ourselves to building on the progress we have made in the last couple of years and what still must be achieved, together,” Mr. Biden said.

Pakistan has undertaken operations in six out of its seven tribal regions close to Afghanistan and lost more than 2,000 soldiers, but has so far not moved into North Waziristan, which remains a haven for militants. Islamabad says its forces are too stretched to attack that region presently — an assessment that some U.S. officials have publicly agreed with.

During a stop in Afghanistan on Tuesday, the vice president said success there would “require more pressure on the Taliban, from Pakistan’s side of the border, than we’ve been able … to exert so far.”

U.S. policymakers regard Pakistan as having equal, if not more, importance to America’s long-term strategic interests than Afghanistan. But Washington’s options are limited in dealing with the country and its militants. Sending ground troops into the northwest would trigger public outrage, empower the Islamists and destabilize the country, a risky proposition given Islamabad’s nuclear weapons.

The suicide attack in the northwestern Bannu region underscored the threat militants pose there despite repeated offensives by the Pakistani army over the last 2½ years.

The blast badly damaged the police station and the mosque, trapping many victims under the rubble. Bannu police chief Mohammad Sajid said 16 people had been killed, and a hospital was treating 30 wounded. A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban who identified himself as Ehsanullah Ehsan called an Associated Press reporter to claim responsibility for the attack.

While encouraging the Pakistani military to take action in the northwest, the CIA has stepped up its use of drone strikes to target militants in the borderlands over the last year. Those attacks, while unpopular among many Pakistanis, are accepted by the Pakistani army.

Earlier Wednesday, one such strike in the North Waziristan region killed four people, Pakistani intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Also in the northwest, two roadside bombs exploded close to a van carrying schoolchildren and female teachers, killing two of the teachers, said police officer Tajmir Shah. Seven others were wounded in the blast in a village close to the main city of Peshawar. It was unclear why — or if — the van was targeted.

Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

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