CORRECTED - U.S. strikes may not halt al Qaeda

Wed Sep 10, 2008 9:44pm BST

Related Topics

(Corrects name of Abbas in 26th paragraph)

By Randall Mikkelsen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Renewed U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban fighters based in the rugged, lawless Pakistan-Afghanistan border area may fall short because of an incomplete strategy and lack of local support.

Last week's election by lawmakers of Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistan's new president raises fresh questions about whether his government will give even tacit approval for the growing number of U.S. strikes at the militants, analysts said.

Ousting Taliban and al Qaeda fighters from the border area is a key to stability in Afghanistan, riven by violence nearly seven years after the U.S.-led invasion, and in Pakistan, where Islamist attacks are straining an already unstable government.

"There is no quick fix to this problem," said Andrew McGregor, terrorism editor at the Jamestown Foundation, a security think tank.

A substantial strengthening of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and a strong police presence in Pakistan, were necessary to do the job, analysts said.

SHIFTING FORCES

As the United States prepared for the sombre anniversary of the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda in 2001, President George W. Bush this week announced plans to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, reflecting a partial shift in forces from Iraq.

The U.S. military conceded on Wednesday it was not winning in Afghanistan and said it would revise its strategy to include safe havens in Pakistan.

Still, Bush's plan to step up the fight in Afghanistan was quickly criticized as inadequate.

"The core frustration is we just don't have what we need to do the job on the ground in Afghanistan," said Frederick Barton of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Pakistan's failure to control its side of the border made the problem worse, he said.

The United States has killed several senior al Qaeda figures in Pakistan through stepped-up attacks by pilotless aircraft over the last year.

The Washington Post said Pakistani officials reported 11 strikes so far this year, up from three in 2007. Tension rose last week when U.S. commandos attacked an al Qaeda target inside Pakistan, apparently without prior notice to Islamabad.

Angry officials in Pakistan said women and children were among the dead in the first known U.S. ground operation there since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

"Such attacks can discredit the new government," said Hassan Abbas, a Harvard University research fellow and former regional Pakistani police chief in the border area.

He called the timing of the strikes "surprising, because that creates political problems for the new president."

QUIET UNDERSTANDING

Zardari was sworn in as president on Tuesday to succeed Pervez Musharraf, a close U.S. ally who resigned to avoid impeachment.

Musharraf and the Bush administration are believed to have had quiet understandings about U.S. military strikes but Abbas said these were now under review by the new administration in Islamabad.

Zardari vowed at his swearing in to work with neighbours including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had tensions with Musharraf, but said defeating the militants required popular support and avoiding civilian casualties.

Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, said in a strongly worded statement on Wednesday that foreign troops would not be allowed to carry out missions on Pakistani soil and vowed to defend the country's territorial integrity.

"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. "Falling for short-term gains while ignoring our long-term interest is not the right way forward."

Whether or not Zardari acquiesces to permit new attacks, he "will have great difficulty in exerting any influence on the situation," McGregor said.

Further hampering the government, he said, Pakistan's military intelligence maintains ties with the Taliban as a way to project influence into Afghanistan.

LAW AND ORDER

Drone strikes and commando raids can have only limited success against the militants without a broader strategy to protect local populations, analysts said.

"The only way you are going to be able to shut them down is if you have a reassuring presence in enough of the villages ... and the people of these communities are comfortable and they turn on these people (the militants) themselves," Barton said.

Pakistan's fragile government and tank-heavy army are ill-suited to mountain fighting, senior U.S. intelligence official Thomas Fingar said last week.

Rather than troops, a heavy police presence was needed in the region, Abbas said.

"Effective law enforcement is critical for defeating terrorists," he wrote in the September 11 issue of a West Point Combating Terrorism Centre's journal.

As for bin Laden, who remains at large as Bush prepares to leave office in January after presidential and congressional elections on November 4, the White House vowed to keep hunting but suggested it may be a long-term project.

"This president, and I'm sure future presidents, will continue to try to track down al Qaeda leaders," spokeswoman Dana Perino said on Wednesday. "We will continue to try to find Osama bin Laden."

(Editing by Kristin Roberts and John O'Callaghan)

FILED UNDER:
Comments (0)
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.