Pakistanis give Gen. Petraeus an earful on his first visit

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2008 

US NEWS USIRAQ-HEARINGS 24 MCT

Army General David Petraeus, top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, testifies before on the state of the war in Iraq.

CHUCK KENNEDY — Chuck Kennedy / MCT

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani leaders, frustrated that they're unable to curb U.S. missile strikes on Pakistani territory, publicly reproached Gen. David Petraeus Monday on his maiden visit to this country as the new U.S. commander for the Middle East.

Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, told Petraeus: "Continuing drone attacks on our territory, which result in loss of precious lives and property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government. It is creating a credibility gap," according to a statement issued by president's office.

Petraeus also met Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani and Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, who are reported to have delivered similar reproaches. However, the strikes, which have intensified during the past two months, killing dozens and causing a public uproar in Pakistan, are expected to continue.

Petraeus, who's credited with pulling Iraq away from the brink of collapse, pointedly made Pakistan his first visit to the region, after last week assuming charge of American military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan, as the head of the U.S. Central Command. One of his top priorities is to develop a new strategy to defeat the Taliban and al Qaida in Afghanistan.

Pakistan backed the Taliban government in Afghanistan until the 9/11 attacks. Some experts believe the powerful Pakistani army continues to support elements within the Taliban and see the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul as dangerously allied with Pakistan's arch-adversary, India.

"Pakistan has been targeting different Taliban factions than the U.S.," said Farrukh Saleem, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a policy institute in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and al Qaida all have found refuge in Pakistan's tribal area, a lawless territory that runs along the Afghan border. The U.S. has targeted its missile strikes in the tribal area at al Qaida militants and Afghan Taliban commanders, such as veteran jihadists Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The Pakistan army has gone after forces loyal to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who is fighting against Islamabad.

Increasingly, the cross-allegiances are creating tensions between Washington and Islamabad. Last week, a U.S. strike in Barikot village in South Waziristan, a part of the tribal area, narrowly missed killing Maulvi Nazir, a "pro-government" Pakistani Taliban leader who's at peace with Islamabad but at war with Kabul. Pakistan doesn't consider Nazir an enemy, while the U.S. hasn't attacked Baitullah Mehsud, whom Pakistan does regard as an enemy. The different views of who is the enemy make Pakistan and the U.S. uneasy partners, analysts said.

Zardari's government has claimed that the battle against armed Islamic extremists is "Pakistan's war" but it's been powerless to stop the U.S. attacks, which provide ammunition for those who consider it "America's war."

"The greatest violence I see is from the most armed player on the scene, the U.S.-led coalition, who have absolutely no respect for life," said Fasih Bokhari, a former Pakistani naval chief turned analyst. "The Taliban were doing a damn better job looking after Afghanistan (before 9/11) than NATO and the Americans."

Petraeus has launched a broad review of U.S. policy in Central Command's entire area of responsibility, which includes the Middle East and much of South Asia, 20 countries in all.

But the effort has encountered problems even before it's gotten under way. The U.S. military recruited several former high-ranking State Department officials to participate in the review, but late last week informed them that it could not pay their salaries or for their travel to the region, according to two individuals involved in the effort.

Petraeus assumed command for Iraq last year and engineered a "surge" of some 30,000 extra U.S. troops and a successful tactic of separating Sunni Muslim nationalist insurgents from al Qaida by turning Iraqi Sunni tribes against foreign jihadists inspired by Osama bin Laden. The two key tenets of this counter-insurgency strategy could be replicated in Afghanistan, but success requires Pakistan to be on board.

"Petraeus does understand that, while the basic template from Iraq is applicable in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are many, many differences," said Kamran Bokhari, the director of Middle East analysis at Stratfor, a private U.S. geopolitical intelligence firm. "The key difference is that Iraq was a sectarian conflict."

Petraeus used the threat of Shiite dominance in Iraq to entice Sunnis into the mainstream, whereas both Afghanistan and Pakistan have large Sunni majorities.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent in Pakistan. Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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