U.S. policy targeting al Qaeda militants inside Pakistan without its foreknowledge and consent may be jeopardizing the country’s fragile democratic government, which is struggling to defeat Islamic extremists on its own, regional specialists and U.S. intelligence officials say.
A recent exchange of fire along the Afghan border between Pakistani and U.S. forces could be a sign of dissent within the Pakistani military about newly elected Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari‘s close relationship with Washington and with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the officials and specialists said.
“Pakistan has experienced a period of serious political uncertainty over the past year,” said a U.S. official, who is familiar with intelligence reporting on Pakistan and asked not to be identified because of the nature of his work.
“As the new government settles in, political opponents operating within the system - or opponents of the Pakistani political system itself, such as extremists operating out of the country´s tribal areas - may very well try to take advantage of that.”
It’s still not clear why the Pakistani military shot Thursday at two NATO helicopters, which International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) said were not flying in Pakistan’s airspace. There were also reports of an exchange of fire between ground forces, although no reports of casualties.
It’s possible that the Pakistani military acted without authorization from civilian authorities to protest previous U.S. incursions into Pakistan, including a raid on Sept. 3.
Mr. Zardari was in New York at the time of the exchange of fire, attending the U.N. General Assembly.
“There is much suspicion between the army and Zardari,” said Bruce Riedel, an expert in counterterrorism and senior adviser to three U.S. presidents. “He has little, if any, control of the army or ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence service].”
Members of the Pakistani army and ISI are suspected of aiding al Qaeda and Taliban members.
Mr. Riedel added that Pakistani army officials may also be “suspicious of [Mr. Zardari’s] close ties to Karzai.”
“If he is embarrassed by some incidents on the border while he is in New York, they may see that as to their advantage,” Mr. Riedel said. “There is a very complex political game under way in Pakistan, which is making a dangerous situation worse.”
A U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity owing to the nature of his work, said that militants are taking advantage of Pakistan’s current political instability but that al Qaeda has also benefited from several years of failed policies and treaties under the previous president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, that created safe havens for the terrorist organization.
The situation has become even more contentious because of a Bush administration directive, reported by The Washington Times last month, to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before the end of Mr. Bush’s presidency.
Barnett Rubin, a specialist on Afghanistan and director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, said if Mr. Bush’s concerns for his legacy are overriding Pakistani sovereignty, that is “extraordinarily wrong and narcissistic” of the U.S. administration.
Pakistan’s long-term goals of dealing with militants in the tribal region “may be a longer but more sustainable plan” than a “quick short-term goal of targeting militants” in the region, Mr. Rubin said.
Mr. Zardari has stressed that Pakistan’s fight against extremism “is a fight for the hearts and minds of people.”
“It can´t be won only by guns and bombs,” Mr. Zardari said in a speech on Thursday at the United Nations. “The battleground must be economic and social as well as military.”
Pakistani officials point out that they have been trying to defeat the militants on their own.
Over the past six weeks, thousands of Pakistani troops supported by helicopter gunships, tanks and other strategic military equipment have been sent into Bajaur, a hilly area in the Federally Administered Tribal Area that borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province. The fighting has continued despite hopes that a Ramadan truce at the beginning of September would be sustainable.
Reports from the region say that many residents have fled heavy artillery exchanges between the troops and Taliban forces.
“We are capable of fighting the extremists ourselves, and we want the doors to information sharing to be opened,” said a Pakistani official who asked not to be named.
The security situation outside the tribal areas remains precarious. A bombing on Sept. 20 at the Marriott Hotel in the capital, Islamabad, killed more than 50 people, including three Americans.
On Thursday, the U.S. suspended visa services at consular offices in Pakistan, citing security concerns.
Pakistani airports have been placed on high alert, and British Airways suspended flights to Islamabad last week. Security officials in Pakistan said they received a phone call recently from a person threatening to attack Islamabad airport. Pakistani security officials said the area around the airport has been searched and security has been elevated.