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Obama endorses missile attacks

January 25, 2009

WASHINGTON, Jan 24: Hours after US missiles killed 22 people in Fata, President Barack Obama convened a meeting of his top national security advisers and endorsed the decision to continue drone strikes into Pakistan.

The US media, quoting unidentified official sources, reported that the first meeting of Mr Obama’s National Security Council focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that the decision to attack alleged terrorist targets in Fata on Friday “dispelled for the moment any notion that Mr Obama would rein in the Predator attacks.”

The Washington Post noted that the strikes “offered the first tangible sign of President Obama’s commitment to sustained military pressure on the terrorist groups” in Fata.

At his daily White House briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to answer questions about the strikes, saying: “I’m not going to get into these matters.”

Remotely piloted Predator drones operated by the Central Intelligence Agency have carried out 28 missile attacks in Fata since last summer, killing at least 132 people.

The NYT, quoting Pakistani officials, reported that as many as 100 of them were civilians.

Although US and Pakistani officials insist that the missiles targeted Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects, many civilians were also killed in the attacks, making it harder for the country’s shaky government to win support for its decision to join the US-led war against terror.

After Friday’s strikes, a Pakistani security official said in Islamabad that at least 10 insurgents, including five foreign nationals and possibly a high-value target such as a senior Al Qaeda or Taliban official, were among the 22 killed.

But US officials told NYT in Washington that “there were no immediate signs that the strikes had killed any senior Qaeda leaders.”

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, however, said that Islamabad “hopes President Obama will be more patient while dealing with Pakistan”.

Appealing to the new US administration to “hear us out,” Mr Haqqani said: “We will review all options if Obama does not adopt a positive policy towards us.”

Meanwhile, the US media reported that President Obama and his top national security team are likely in the coming days to review other counterterrorism measures put in place by the Bush administration. These include former President George W. Bush’s decision to send US Special Operations forces to Fata in July to carry out ground attacks without the approval of the Pakistan government.

The Washington Post noted that the ‘shaky’ Zardari government had hoped for warm relations with the Obama administration, “but members of Mr Obama’s new national security team have already telegraphed their intention to make firmer demands of Islamabad than the Bush administration.”

The Obama administration, the report said, backed up those demands with a threatened curtailment of the plentiful military aid that has been at the heart of US-Pakistan ties for the past three decades.

In August 2007, Mr Obama had declared that he favoured taking direct action in Pakistan against potential threats to US security if Pakistani security forces do not act.

Islamabad, however, had hoped that Mr Obama will tone down his rhetoric after the election.

But his Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton indicated during her Senate confirmation hearing that the new administration will not relent in holding Pakistan to account for any shortfalls in the continuing battle against extremists.

In her written answers to the lawmakers’ questions, published in the US media on Saturday, Secretary Clinton pledged that Washington will “condition” future US military aid on Pakistan’s efforts to close down terrorist training camps and evict foreign fighters.

She also demanded that Pakistan “prevent” the continued use of its historically lawless northern territories as a sanctuary by either the Taliban or Al Qaeda. And she promised that Washington would provide all the support Pakistan needs if it specifically goes after targets such as Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be using Pakistani mountains as a hideout.

At the same time, Ms Clinton pledged to triple non-military aid to Pakistan, long dwarfed by the more than $6 billion funnelled to Pakistani military forces under President George W. Bush through the Pentagon’s counterterrorism office in Islamabad.