Last week Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, on a visit to Washington DC, warned that he expects another Taliban offensive before winter. The Bush Administration appears to fear strikes in the region as well. The Sunday Telegraph, citing a “senior US intelligence official,” insists that the escalation of US attacks in the Pakistani tribal regions this month are designed to disrupt the ability of al-Qaeda and other groups to coordinate pre-election plots.
The increase in US attacks, referred to as “phase one” of a three stage plan, have focused on North and South Waziristan. Several air strikes from US drones have killed dozens in the tribal areas, many of them civilians. Perhaps the biggest provocation though came early in the month when US ground forces and helicopters attacked a tiny South Waziristan border village, reportedly killing 20 civilians.
Relations have worsened with Pakistan since the beginning of “phase one,” with repeated warnings from Pakistan’s civilian government and Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Parvez Kayani ordering the military to bar foreign incursions with force. All this tension came to a head Thursday, when US and Pakistani soldiers traded fire for five minutes across the border between North Waziristan and Afghanistan’s Khost Province.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has positioned himself as a public friend to the United States, a label that is becoming an increasing liability as anti-US sentiment rises with the Waziristan body count. And while Zardari continues to praise President Bush publicly, there are fears that his position is increasingly tenuous.
In fact the Washington Times cites regional specialists and US officials who caution the US attacks are creating a potentially dangerous situation for the civilian government, particularly with Zardari out of the country visiting the US. The Times quotes former adviser Bruce Riedel as saying Zardari “has little, if any, control of the army,” and speculating that the Pakistani military may be suspicious of Zardari’s “close ties to (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai.”
And while General Kayani seems much less willing to meddle in governmental affairs than his predecessors, he may find himself under increasing pressure to be more proactive if the US strikes continue while the president issues only weak warnings and denies that the more serious incidents have even taken place.