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Anti-US Feeling Running High as CIA Drones Take a Civilian Toll

Turbulent Pakistan presents a conundrum for Barack Obama

Declan Walsh in Islamabad

A Reaper drone, as used by the CIA and American military in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

It is one of the ironies of America's war: while close to 100,000 troops will soon be deployed inside Afghanistan, Obama's core enemy – the men who plotted the 9/11 attacks – are located across the border in Pakistan.

his West Point speech, Obama identified the tribal belt that straddles
the two countries as the "epicentre of the violent extremism practised
by al-Qaida". There, he said, "new attacks are being plotted as I speak".

it is a chilling thought, few Pakistanis appreciate it. Anti-American
feeling is running at fever pitch in a country with deep-rooted
hostility towards Washington and an increasingly hawkish media.

Pakistanis see the US military presence in their region as the cause of
militant extremism, not its cure. Reaction to Obama's speech was
ambivalent, with rightwing commentators insisting his true aim is to
invade Pakistan and capture its nuclear weapons.

"If you ask me,
the surge is really meant for Pakistan," said Hamid Gul, a former chief
of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

The hostility
means that, in Pakistan, Obama relies more heavily on spies than
soldiers. Obama's favoured tactic has been the use of CIA-operated
pilotless drones, which have made over 80 strikes in the tribal belt
since 2006, half of them this year. Targets included the Pakistani Taliban
leader, Baitullah Mehsud, killed last August, and al-Qaida leaders.
Today the New York Times said the CIA is pushing to extend drone
strikes into Balochistan province, further west along the Afghan border.

former US official said a committee of US agencies regularly updates a
list of drone targets, which it shares with Pakistani authorities.
"They tell the Pakistanis that if they don't take these people out, we
will," he said.

While the drones put few American lives in
danger, they still carry substantial risks. Strikes that have killed at
least 750 people in the past two years have provoked public hostility.
Any move into Balochistan is likely to spark a fierce backlash.

US strategy in Pakistan is to "drive a wedge between transnational
jihadists of al-Qaida and their local Taliban allies," said Kamran
Bokhari of the thinktank Stratfor. The difficulty is that some Taliban
– for instance, Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan – enjoy tacit alliances
with the Pakistan military, which considers the "good" Taliban as a
ticket to influence in Afghanistan once the US withdraws. "There is a
divergence of interests," said Bokhari.

Obama's conundrum is
complicated by turbulent politics. President Asif Ali Zardari looks
more beleaguered than ever. To appease his critics, Zardari has
relinquished control over Pakistan's nuclear weapons. But the gesture –
the weapons are really controlled by the military – has done little to
silence his media critics, who daily cry for his removal. The strife
makes Washington deeply uneasy.

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