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Shift in US strategy: Fata operation, hot pursuit feared

July 12, 2008

ISLAMABAD, July 11: There has been a significant shift in the US military’s strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan in dealing with counter-terror measures in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) as, contrary to the past practice, they have stopped informing Pakistan or its security establishment of any military strikes on suspected Al Qaeda or Taliban targets in the region.

It’s not clear when this unannounced shift was decided, but a senior Pakistani security official said the last three missile strikes inside the tribal areas were carried out without any prior intimation or consultation.

“We were not even informed of the planned action,” he said, indicating that the trust-deficit between the Pakistani military and the US-led forces dealing with the terrorism challenge in the region had increased over the past few months.

Some senior security analysts describe it as a serious development which they say may have serious consequences in the long run for the collective effort to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas and even inside Afghanistan.

A western security expert has taken the argument a bit further.

He says it suggest that the Americans do not look towards General Kayani in the same way as they used to look towards President Musharraf when he was the army chief.

In Musharraf, he says, they had complete trust and they never had any hesitation in keeping him in picture regarding such actions.

However, senior Pakistani security officials say that right now they are more concerned about the recent US military build-up in the region which they believe is primarily aimed at targeting suspected Al Qaeda sanctuaries in the tribal region.

The recent concentration of the US-backed troops near the Afghan side of the border, the movement of the American aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln from the Gulf to the Arabian Sea, coupled with the new rhetoric in some American publications about Al Qaeda’s increased presence in Fata and talk of a justified hot pursuit, were indicative of possible military operation, these official said.

Although Washington has officially avoided talking of a direct action in Fata, America’s top military commander Admiral Mike Mullen on Thursday expressed his reservations about the seriousness of Pakistan’s efforts against Al Qaeda.

The chairman of the US joint chief of staff was quoted by the Associated Press news agency in Kabul as saying that Pakistan was not doing enough to stop militants from crossing over into Afghanistan.

“There are clearly more foreign fighters in the Fata than have been there in the past,” he was quoted as saying.

Criticising Pakistan for lack of action, he said “there’s clearly not enough pressure being brought to bear, particularly on the Pakistan side of the border. There’s more freedom there”.

The comments have come after yet another incident of rocket attack from the US-led forces towards Pakistani border in which several Pakistani soldiers have reportedly been injured.

It’s the second incident of its kind –the first being more deadly in early June in which 11 Pakistani soldiers were killed.

Such incidents have not only angered many Pakistani troops, but have also led to further increase in anti-Americanism in the country.

Asked about the possibility of a direct American military action in Fata, a senior Pakistani official dealing with the counter-terrorism operation said the “possibility” was always there, but now the “probability” of such an action had suddenly increased.

The timing may remain a matter of speculations, he says, but circumstances suggest that the Americans are seriously considering such an action in hope to take out one of the top Al Qaeda leaders.

Opinion on the mode of action has, however, remained divided. Most security officials believe it is likely to be a quiet affair, with predators or stealth aircraft for precision missile attacks on suspected militant sanctuaries.

But a few believe the way opinion was being built about the increased Al Qaeda presence in Fata, making it appear a more dangerous place than Iraq, there is a possibility that the Americans may opt for a more publicised military action.

In either case, they say, Washington is not much concerned about its negative fall out in Pakistan. And that is where a serious problem lies.

Pakistani government and security establishment are seriously concerned about the adverse effects such a military action may have in the country, particularly its tribal region.

Some top officials say that if not handled with care it may have disastrous effects in the tribal region, where the sympathy for the Taliban may turn into outright support.

Some seasoned analysts believe the military build-up and talk of military action in the name of hot pursuit are apparently linked to President Bush’s desire to arrest or eliminate a top Al Qaeda figure before the end of his term.

Writer and journalist Graham Usher says that at the end of his tenure, Bush may like to tell the American public that he got the guy (Bin Laden) or one of the (Al Qaeda) guys who killed over 3000 people in the US seven years ago.

According to him the fact is there’s been an upsurge in Taliban activities in Afghanistan, and parts of Fata are like a haven for these militants.

Pakistani security authorities, though trying to block cross-border movement, are primarily trying, and rightly so, to stop terrorism and suicide bombing in Pakistan. Analyst Zahid Hussain agrees with such an assessment, but says that even though President Bush may love to present a success story to the American public in the form of catching or eliminating one of the top Al Qaeda leaders, the American administration does not seem serious about a direct military action in Fata.

However, he says that although the Americans keep giving the impression that they do not care, it would be a major mistake not to understand the ramifications of any direct action in the tribal areas.

Mindful of the likely crisis, the security establishment recently advised the prime minister to start the process of taking the ownership of the entire counter-terrorism policy, and as the first step hold a frank and open debate in parliament and try and evolve a consensus on Pakistan’s home-grown policy to deal with the issue.

Only such a move can discourage American involvement and strengthen the forces that want to contain or even eliminate militancy from the region.