Friday, June 24, 2011

US Focus turn to Pakistan after withdrawal from Afghanistan

Afghanistan could take on new significance for the U.S. as a base to launch unilateral strikes against militants inside neighboring Pakistan that many analysts say is more strategically important than Afghanistan.

That future has become more likely as the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. has deteriorated following the American raid that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden not far from the Pakistani capital last month. The operation humiliated Pakistan, which cut back on counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., a popular move in a country where anti-American sentiment is rife.

The drones are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, and lawmakers took the opportunity to demand the government, which is widely believed to allow the drones to take off from bases inside the country, halt the program.

That demand found resonance with Pakistanis, nearly 70 percent of whom view the U.S. as an enemy despite billions of dollars in American aid, according to a recent poll conducted after the bin Laden raid by the Washington-based Pew Research Center. Only 12 percent of Pakistanis have a positive view of the U.S., according to the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

If Pakistan were to prevent drones from taking off from inside the country, the U.S. would have to launch them from Afghanistan, an act that would further increase tensions in the region, said Riffat Hussain, a defense professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

"The staging area would then become Afghanistan, which would be totally anathema to Pakistan because then you are using another country's territory for attacks against Pakistan," Hussain said. "That will not only escalate tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it means America has declared war on Pakistan."

Hussain, the defense professor, said the beginning of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and Obama's admission that the U.S. would support reconciliation talks with the Taliban made it even less likely that Pakistan would target militants deemed a threat by Washington.

"If you are talking to the Taliban, then you can't expect Pakistan to go after them," Hussain said.

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