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U.S. Commander Calls For Operations In Pakistani Tribal Regions

Admiral Mullen told House members that the U.S. must work closely with Pakistan to root out militants.
Admiral Mullen told House members that the U.S. must work closely with Pakistan to root out militants.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen, has announced that he is commissioning a new military strategy that will cover both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Mullen's statement came on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and said plans include the tribal regions of Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders are thought to be hiding.

Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Congressional committee in Washington on September 10 that the new strategy will allow American forces to fight militants in Pakistan's tribal regions as well as in Afghanistan.

Mullen said a battalion of U.S. Marines would be deployed to Afghanistan in the autumn as part of the strategy and an additional U.S. Army brigade would be deployed there early next year.

Presidential Order

Mullen's testimony roughly coincided with a "New York Times" assertion that President George W. Bush has approved secret orders allowing U.S. forces to conduct ground assaults in Pakistan without Islamabad's consent, although that country's military insists it will not allow foreign troops to carry out operations on Pakistani soil.

Mullen warned U.S. lawmakers that political sensitivities make it essential that the United States work closely with Pakistan as it increasingly focuses on eliminating safe havens for militants in Pakistan's tribal regions who carry out cross border attacks in Afghanistan.

"These two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them," Mullen said. "We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan, but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming."

The death of a U.S. soldier in an attack on a military compound in eastern Afghanistan made 2008 the deadliest year for U.S. forces in that country since the 2001 invasion, AP reported on September 11. The figure of 112 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year surpassed the previous high of 111 in 2007.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai has suggested that the trans-Atlantic alliance will not take part in cross-border raids from Afghanistan. "There are no ground or air incursions by NATO forces into Pakistani territory," Appathurai said. He added that NATO members will discuss the issue but stressed that "it is not NATO that will be sending its forces across the border." NATO defense ministers are due to hold an informal meeting in London on September 18-19.

'War On Terror Started There, It Must End There'

At the same hearing in Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee that Washington was carefully engaging the new political leadership in Islamabad about the fight against Islamic militants.

"We are working with Pakistan in a number of areas. And I do believe that Islamabad appreciates the magnitude of the threat from the tribal areas -- particularly considering the uptick in suicide bombings directed at Pakistani targets," Gates said. "During this time of political turmoil in Pakistan, it is especially critical that we maintain a strong and positive relationship with the government, since any deterioration would be a setback for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The war on terror started in this region. It must end there."

In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has welcomed the new U.S. military plans, saying "a change in the strategy and a new strategy are things that myself and my colleagues in our government have been demanding for the past 3 1/2 years."

"We have always said clearly that a change in the strategy is necessary in the sense that we should go together to places where there are [terrorist] sanctuaries and training centers," Karzai said. "So we should go there together and remove them."

Backlash In Islamabad

However, Pakistan's military leadership insists it will not allow foreign forces to carry out operations on Pakistani territory.

In a written statement released by the military, General Ashfaq Kayani said "no external force is allowed to conduct operations” inside Pakistan." The statement also vowed that Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity will be defended at "all cost."

The statement said a raid reportedly involving U.S. helicopters last week in Pakistan's South Waziristan region had killed innocent civilians.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani backed Kayani's remarks, saying his words reflected government opinion and policy.

Kayani insisted that the rules of engagement with U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan were well defined and that, under those rules, only Pakistan had the right to conduct operations against militants inside its own territory.

"There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border," Kayani said.

But that statement contradicts the "New York Times" report, which quotes a senior U.S. government official as saying members of Pakistan's civilian government have privately agreed to the concept of limited ground assaults by U.S. Special Operations Forces against significant militant targets.

The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Pakistan's government would not be approving each individual U.S.-led mission. The official did not say which members of Pakistan's government had assented.

The report says President Bush secretly approved orders in July that allow ground assaults by U.S. Special Operations Forces inside Pakistan without the prior approval of Pakistan's government.

The report describes Bush's classified orders as a "watershed" after seven years of trying to work with Pakistan to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It says the orders were signed after months of political stalemate about how to challenge militants' bases in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Secret Deal?

Experts say the new orders illustrate lingering distrust of Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies -- particularly the belief expressed by U.S. military officers in Afghanistan that previous U.S. operations have been compromised when Islamabad was informed in advance about them.

There is speculation that a secret deal was reached between Washington and Islamabad to allow Pakistani authorities to maintain a safe political distance from U.S. incursions.

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani Army general and an Islamabad-based military analyst, said the new U.S. strategy creates a dilemma for Islamabad. Masood said Pakistan's government and military forces are fully prepared to cooperate with U.S. forces because it is in the best interests of Pakistan's security but that "the Americans are creating such difficulties by invading the territory and giving an impression as though this is their war and it is their interest."

The situation "complicates issues for [Pakistan's] civilian government and it makes it so difficult for the military to fight the militants because, in this war, you need the support of the people of Pakistan."

"If you lose the support of the people of Pakistan, the militants will take full advantage of this," Masood warned, "and I think the militants will be the greatest beneficiaries."

Masood also cautioned that unilateral military action by the United States in the tribal regions would make it more difficult for the government in Islamabad to resolve economic and political problems that he said were contributing to the insurgency in the tribal areas.

"This war can never be won with just a military instrument alone," Masood said. "The military instrument is necessary to the extent of creating and reestablishing the writ of the state and putting the militants on the defensive -- and allowing the government to address the real issues which have given cause to this militancy in terms of economic development or governance, but that would not be feasible if the United States keeps insisting on this unilateral military action and also insists that Pakistan rely only on the military instruments. So it is creating huge complications."

'Critical Crossroad'

Afrasiab Khattak, A senior Pashtun politician and peace envoy for the government of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), said the situation in the region has reached a critical crossroad.

"This is not a new phenomenon. The sources of the war in Afghanistan were on the Pakistani side," Khattak said. "Now this has increased so much that there are thousands of people here [in Pakistan] who have bases here and are fighting across the border in Afghanistan. These people are openly saying in press conferences and interviews that they are fighting in Afghanistan."

In an apparent reference to recently resigned President Pervez Musharraf, Khattak said that "unfortunately, the past Pakistani governments had turned a blind eye to [boasts of cross-border activities] or were denying it."

"Now the situation is so alarming that nobody can deny it," Khattak said. "So it is high time for a resolution to this issue."

Khattak said he has hope that Pakistan's new civilian government will take serious steps to addressing the problem -- especially after the visit to Islamabad by Afghan President Karzai for the inauguration of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on September 9.

The two vowed during that visit to enhance cooperation, and both indicated they had reached agreement on how to battle insurgents in their border regions.

Khattak maintained that Pakistan was right to oppose U.S. military operations on its soil, but he said Pakistan also is responsible for removing sanctuaries for foreign terrorists on its soil.

"Before our tribal areas -- our Pashtun belt -- is turned into a battlefield for a global conflict, the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan should sit together," Khattak said. "They should have candid, frank discussions and look at the issues realistically to resolve them."

There is wide agreement among experts that without regional cooperation and a comprehensive regional political strategy, U.S. military operations alone are unlikely to resolve the complicated situation on Pakistan's border regions. They point to earlier operations in Iraq and Afghanistan where U.S.-led military forces initially were successful but later became bogged down by complex insurgencies.

with additional wire reporting

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