U.S. pressure on Pakistan to attack militants may backfire

Pakistani protesters burn a U.S. flag to condemn the visit of U.S. officials John Negroponte and Richard Boucher.
Pakistani protesters burn a U.S. flag to condemn the visit of U.S. officials John Negroponte and Richard Boucher. AP

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Top U.S. officials on Thursday publicly questioned the plans of Pakistan's newly elected civilian government to negotiate with militants in the country's border region with Afghanistan and instead urged the continued use of military force.

Concluding a visit that's been widely criticized for taking place before a new government was fully formed, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said that talking with many of the insurgents is unthinkable.

"Security measures obviously are necessary when one is talking about dealing with irreconcilable elements who want to destroy our very way of life," Negroponte told reporters in Karachi at the end of a three-day visit. "I don't see how you can talk with those kind of people."

He added, however, that there are "reconcilable elements" that could be brought into the political process and said that development aid programs are part of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

The militants range from Osama bin Laden and other al Qaida leaders to thuggish local and tribal leaders who've adopted radical Islam as a way to ensure their hold on power.

In Pakistan's Feb. 18 election, voters resoundingly rejected U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, raising doubts about his future and the military action that he and President Bush have championed against Taliban and al Qaida fighters operating in the country's tribal areas.

The civil parties that won control of the government in the election have said that Pakistan's new counterterrorism policy will be based on negotiations with the militants, and they indicated they'll seek talks with all extremist groups.

Analysts and politicians said the visit by Negroponte and Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, may backfire as Pakistani politicians respond by distancing themselves from the Bush administration's war on terror.

"To my mind, it seems ham-handed insensitivity that brought Negroponte and Boucher to Pakistan. Because certainly no one has welcomed their visit here," said Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of the country's leading political commentators. "It's a sign of panic, anxiety, of things slipping through their hand."

In a meeting with Asif Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Negroponte and Boucher stressed the importance of a "smooth transition" from Musharraf's authoritarian rule to democracy, according to participants in the meeting.

The meeting with Nawaz Sharif, who heads the second-largest party in parliament, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, seems to have failed entirely. Sharif said that Pakistan would no longer be a "killing field" where other countries pursue their own interests.

Negroponte and Boucher also had what may be a sobering meeting with tribal elders Wednesday in Landi Kotal, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. "We told them that whatever differences we have (with the extremists), they can all be solved through the jirga system," said Malik Darya Khan, one of the tribal chiefs who participated, referring to the traditional meetings of elders to solve disputes.

There also appeared to be an open dispute between Sharif and U.S. officials on how to deal with Musharraf. Sharif said afterward: "We don't recognize him as the legitimate president."

Dawn newspaper, in an editorial on Thursday, described the arrival of the two U.S. envoys as "indecent haste." It added: "It is time Washington gave the new government time to settle down."

"Bad timing gives the wrong signals, as if they are trying to pressurize the new government when it is in the stages of being formed," said Shireen Mazari, the director general of Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad.

"The war on terror has be to revisited. The most dangerous thing is that the Americans have succeeded in shifting the center of gravity of the war to Pakistan. We have to shift it back to Afghanistan," Mazari said.

Pakistani concerns about U.S. activity have been ignited over the last month by a series of apparent American missile attacks on targets in Pakistan. The news that the former commander of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp, where hundreds of Muslim prisoners, many of them Pakistanis, have been held without charge, has been appointed the chief U.S. defense representative in Pakistan isn't likely to help relations.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)