A newspaper report published Thursday says the United States has stepped up its unilateral air strikes on al-Qaida fighters holed up in Pakistan's rugged tribal areas. The story, which appeared in the Washington Post, says the U.S. is concerned about the new Pakistani government's commitment to cooperation with U.S. antiterrorism efforts. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the story raises questions about the future relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
The report quotes unnamed U.S. officials saying the United States has increased the pace of its attacks by unmanned Predator drone aircraft out of concern that the new Pakistani government will scale back anti-terrorist operations.
Asked about the issue, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman neither confirmed nor denied the report.
"Our operations with Pakistan are closely coordinated," he said. "Pakistan recognizes that we fight a common enemy when it comes to terrorists. And beyond that, I just don't have anything for you on specific operations."
Although the air strikes are not officially acknowledged, they are controversial in Pakistan, where they are widely seen as a U.S. violation of Pakistani sovereignty. The incoming Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and his coalition partner, ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, have indicated they want less of a military and more of a diplomatic approach to Islamic militants, especially the Pakistani Taliban. They have also said the issue of cooperation with the United States will be put before parliament.
Some analysts wonder why the U.S. would step up the drone attacks, and why the story was leaked. Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst at the RAND Corporation, says if the motive is to put pressure on the Pakistani government, it is misguided. She says Mr. Musharraf has been rendered irrelevant by the new elected government, and the decision on cooperation is actually made by Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kayani.
"This doesn't make any sense," she said. "Everyone here knows that Kayani makes the decision to cooperate or not to cooperate. Everyone I've spoken to believes that Kayani is very much game to cooperate. So why would you escalate those very attacks that would put pressure on Kayani when everyone believes that Kayani is cooperating? So I really don't understand the logic of this."
Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says the prospect of a policy shift in Islamabad makes Washington uneasy.
"I would not exclude the possibility that doing something different might be more effective than the old policy," she noted. "This is a time that is going to make American policymakers very nervous, however, because they are not keen on experimentation in this area, and they are particularly not keen on any approach that eliminates the military element from this policy."
The report also says there is what it terms a "tacit understanding" between President Pervez Musharraf and army chief Kayani to allow U.S. strikes on foreign fighters, but not on the Pakistani Taliban.
Christine Fair says that differentiating between the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida may not make sense to U.S. policymakers, but it is more politically palatable to the new government in Pakistan.
"They've been saying that we need to peel apart the foreigners from the Pakistanis," she explained. "The foreigners need to be killed and eliminated; the Pakistanis need a political solution. And that is probably a very fair concern, because they can't just go and eliminate all of their people. It's just not feasible. Now the problem, of course, with this negotiated solution is that negotiated solutions always mean giving some kind of concession, and I don't know what kind of concession it's going to take to put a movement like the Pakistani Taliban on the ice."
President Musharraf, when he was both President and Army Chief, tried to strike peace deals with pro-Taliban tribal leaders, but those deals eventually frayed and then fell apart.