ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Taliban bombing that killed three U.S. special forces soldiers in Pakistan on Wednesday could further weaken the government and hurt U.S. efforts to win more backing in the fight against militants.
While the presence of U.S. soldiers to train paramilitary forces is hardly a secret, it is a highly sensitive matter in Pakistan, where anti-American anger runs high.
“It will only convince the public, even moderate Pakistanis who are anti-Taliban, that the government is doing nothing expect lying to them, and the military (is) for that matter,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani analyst and expert on militants.
“It will be a big blow for public morale.”
Wednesday’s attack at a girls’ school near the Afghan border is likely to generate elaborate conspiracy theories, with one simple question already asked: Why were special ops troops attending the inauguration of a girls school anyway?
First television channels said the dead foreigners were journalists, then officials said they were aid workers. Only later did the Pakistani military and the U.S. embassy say they were American soldiers.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman said the U.S. soldiers were invited by the Pakistani paramilitary Frontier Corps to attend the inauguration of the U.S.-funded project.
“It is going to pose some problems for the Pakistani government,” said Riffat Hussein, a professor at Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University.
“It might even lead to some kind of questioning in the Pakistani parliament about the presence of American special forces on Pakistani soil.”
Suspicions are likely to deepen at an unfortunate time for the United States, which sees long-time ally Pakistan as a vital in its fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.
Washington wants Pakistan to go after Afghan Taliban who cross the border to attack Western troops in Afghanistan, a move that could antagonise militants Islamabad has long seen as assets.
But Pakistan’s military is already stretched against the homegrown al Qaeda-backed Taliban, which claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s bombing.
The violence highlighted the resolve of the Pakistani Taliban and raised questions about the effectiveness of a government security crackdown launched in mid-October that destroyed the group’s bases in their main stronghold.
It also further lifted the profile of the Pakistani Taliban, whose leader Hakimullah Mehsud appeared in a farewell video with the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA agents in Afghanistan in December.
The Pakistani Taliban have previously focussed on toppling the government, not attacking U.S. soldiers, but now the United States faces the prospect of coming under further attacks from them.
The possibility Pakistan’s Taliban may have known U.S. troops were travelling in the convoy will ring new alarm bells.
“A lot of the bombings in Pakistan have been inside jobs. In the sense that they have been carried out by people in the security services who leaked information to the bombers,” Rashid alleged. “Is this such a case? If so it’s very, very dangerous.” U.S. defence officials said Islamabad had in the past thrown up obstacles to expanding the Special Operations mission over fears of a public backlash, frustrating U.S. officials.
Winning more Pakistani cooperation could be even more difficult now, judging by the reaction from some Pakistanis.
“If they were trainers what they were doing in such a sensitive region? They should train in a garrison instead of roaming around,” said Syed Sajjad Ali Shah, a retired school principal.
“Our rulers are not politicians. They’re money-makers. They don’t care what’s happening to the country. What’s good and what’s not good for the country.”
Unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari has little room for manoeuvre anyway, with frustrations spreading over the troubled economy and chronic power shortages.
He could become more vulnerable if his aides, including the defence and interior ministers, are prosecuted under revived corruption charges.
(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Kamran Haider)
Editing by David Fox