ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani officials are urging the incoming Obama administration to stop air attacks on Pakistani territory and even are hinting that they might shoot down U.S. drones that have hit al Qaeda militants and civilian bystanders.
U.S. forces based in Afghanistan have carried out about 25 strikes this year, most of them by drones, in the troubled border region.
However, a Nov. 19 attack was carried out beyond the tribal area in the so-called settled areas of Pakistan. After the strike on Bannu, a district in the North West Frontier Province, the government summoned U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson to the foreign ministry and lodged a formal protest.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq said the U.S. ambassador was told that the attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Pakistani officials have publicly discussed a military option.
Air force Air Chief Marshal Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed last week said that if the government decides to shoot down the pilotless craft, the military is fully capable of intercepting them.
“The air force is ready for any type of air defense,” Air Chief Marshal Ahmed was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.
The strikes have sparked widespread anger and resentment across Pakistan, particularly in the tribal region, and are spreading fear and panic because of reported civilian casualties.
On Sept. 23, a drone crashed inside Pakistani territory near Angoor Ada in South Waziristan agency.
The Pakistani army said the drone crashed because of a technical malfunction. However, residents in Angoor Ada claimed they shot down the drone.
U.S. officials have told The Washington Times that Pakistan has given tacit approval for attacks that are confined to tribal areas and do not involve U.S. ground forces.
A Pakistani official, who asked not to be named, said “these are very sensitive matters” and that the target had to be “a very important asset” to justify an attack.
In public, Pakistani officials vehemently deny any bargain with Washington.
A military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said there is no agreement or understanding between Pakistan and the United States regarding U.S. strikes inside Pakistani territory.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Nov. 20 said the same thing to Pakistan’s Parliament.
“Being chief executive of this country, I want to assure that there is no understanding,” he said. He added that if there was any such understanding between the United States and former President Pervez Musharraf, the present government has no record of it.
The government called a special meeting of Parliament for Tuesday to discuss the U.S. strikes. However, when the national security conference convened in Islamabad, the agenda was overtaken by last week’s terror attacks in Mumbai that killed 172 people.
U.S. officials on Tuesday said evidence pointed to a group partly based in Pakistan as the perpetrator of the attacks, after authorities in India for days claimed a Pakistani connection.
Tensions between the nuclear-powered rivals as a result of the attacks could lead Pakistan to redeploy some of the more than 100,000 troops now on its porous western border with Afghanistan and force the government to put off a possible confrontation with the U.S. over the drone strikes.
Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Pakistan had agreed to a strategy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to U.S. attacks. Denying it has given permission is “essential to the government’s survival,” she said. “Otherwise they are allowing themselves to be walked over as well as bombed.”
The danger, she said, is that “this is a moving target.” Though U.S. intelligence appears to be getting better, there is always the chance of civilian casualties.
She predicted that the incoming Obama administration would continue the policy, noting that tracking down al Qaeda suspects in Pakistan was “the one issue on which [President-elect Barack Obama] sounded more hawkish than [Sen. John] McCain.”
Mr. Gilani has told Parliament that he hopes Mr. Obama will change the policy once he assumes office.
However, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, head of the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, said he doubted that would be the case.
“It will be childish to expect anything from Obama,” he said. “One person cannot change the U.S. policies; rather, it needs a gradual process.
“Neoconservatives, Zionists and other extremist groups are very powerful and influence the U.S. foreign policy. Obama will do whatever the neocons want him to do,” he said.
Sen. Anwar Beg of the ruling Pakistan People´s Party said the attacks are destabilizing the government.
“Drone attacks must stop immediately,” he said. “There is no time to wait until Jan. 20.”
For the Pakistani government, Miss Schaffer said, the priority is fighting a growing internal insurgency that is fueled in part by the perception that the government is in bed with the United States.
“What Pakistan really needs is more counterinsurgency capability and the political space to make it look like it’s their own invention,” she said.