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Pakistanis Question Attack on Suspected Terrorist Center


On October 30, an aerial attack on a suspected terrorist facility in one of Pakistan's tribal areas killed at least 80 people. The air strike dealt a blow to part of the government's counter-terrorism strategy and heightened anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf says the October 30 raid on a madrassa, or Islamic religious school, in the Bajaur "agency", as tribal areas are called, was a Pakistani army operation against a terrorist training center.

"Anyone who is saying that these people were innocent Taleban is telling lies," said General Musharraf. "We were watching them since the last six or seven days. We knew exactly who they are, what they are doing. They were all militants using weapons doing military training within the compound."

Some reports have suggested the target of the raid was al-Qaida's number two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is believed to have visited the area before but was not there on October 30.

Syed Farooq Hasnat, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says there is widespread belief in Pakistan that the air raid was a direct U.S. attack on Pakistani soil on a religious institution.

"There is a widespread feeling in Pakistan, and according to the eyewitnesses account, that it was not the Pakistani forces which attacked," he noted. "In fact, there's a very high suspicion that it was the American drone [pilotless aircraft] which really attacked that place."

Some witnesses say the initial fatal fire came not from Pakistani helicopter gunships but from U.S. Predator drone pilotless aircraft, and that the Pakistani gunships came in after the initial salvo.

A Pentagon spokesman says no U.S. forces were involved in the raid. But the carefully worded denial does not rule out civilian involvement. Asked about the possible use of a drone, CIA and State Department officials said they would not comment on intelligence matters.

Seth Jones, a South Asian specialist at the Rand Corporation, says that, while there may have been U.S. logistical and intelligence support to Pakistani forces, he believes the madrassa raid was a Pakistani operation.

"It's certainly conceivable that there were other governments involved, NATO or U.S. governments involved, in helping provide information and intelligence. But my hunch is that this was largely a Pakistani initiated and orchestrated attack," he said.

Chris Fair, a Pakistan affairs specialist at the non-partisan U.S. Institute for Peace, says independent analysis of exactly what happened is impossible because outside observers have been barred from the area.

"This is the big question. And we do not have, as you know, presence of independent observers that can confirm or disconfirm different rumors," said Fair. "So on the one hand, there is the story that the Pakistanis are maintaining that the Pakistan army did this."

"But there are other rumors, some circumstantial evidence, that maybe the U.S. did this," she continued. "So, one, we don't really know who did it. Two, we do not really know anything about the credibility of evidence that in fact that these were Zawahiri associates."

But if it was a U.S.-led attack, as many Pakistanis are prepared to believe, then why would Pakistan take full responsibility for it?

General Musharraf has been under great pressure from the United States to stop cross-border terrorist activity. But Pakistani military efforts in tribal areas have been ineffectual, as there is sympathy for the Taleban in those areas and even in some Pakistani military and intelligence circles. So General Musharraf, under what some analysts say was pressure from the army, negotiated an agreement with tribal leaders in North Waziristan to get them to halt cross-border terrorist activity themselves. A similar deal was ready to be signed in Bajaur, which is farther north of Waziristan, just before the attack.

Christine Fair says the United States and Pakistan see the Taleban and al-Qaida through different prisms. The U.S. went into Afghanistan in 2001 to dislodge the Taleban for giving sanctuary to al-Qaida, so the United States sees them as one and the same. Pakistan, she says, views the al-Qaida as foreign terrorists but sees the resurgent Taleban as potential tool to be used to keep Afghanistan from becoming too strong.

"The Taleban is a huge area of disagreement. We want support for the Taleban to cease. The Pakistanis, for a number of what I think are actually valid security concerns about the region, have been very reluctant to let go of the Taleban," she added.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat who now heads the Center for International Relations at Boston University, believes that General Musharraf, knowing that to allow direct American military action on Pakistani soil would be political suicide, cut his own deal with the United States.

"So the compromise then is, let the Americans operate against the targets they feel necessary to hit, let the Pakistan government take the responsibility," he said. "It's at least a little less than acknowledging that we can't finish the job and the Americans have to come and do it."

On Wednesday, a suicide bomber killed at least 42 Pakistani soldiers at an army post in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. The attack is believed by many Pakistani and Western analysts to be a reprisal for the Bajaur strike.

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