The US bombing of tribal territory has further accentuated Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's dilemma, writes Iffat Idris from Islamabad
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Pakistani tribal villagers view damage caused by US airstrikes in the northwestern Pakistani village of Damadola near the Afghan border
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf once again finds himself in domestic strife because of his support for the United States-led war on terror. Protests in Pakistan over the bombing of a village near the Afghan border by US forces have highlighted the dilemma faced by the Pakistani leader, who is having to balance US concerns with domestic opinion.
The bombing took place on the morning of 14 January in the village of Damadola, in the Bajaur tribal area, seven kms from the Afghan border. American intelligence reports apparently indicated that Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's number two, would be attending a dinner in the village. At 3.15 am in the morning, American bombs struck three houses in the village killing 18 people, including several women and children. Al-Zawahiri was not among the dead.
The attack triggered massive protests, not just in the tribal belt, but across Pakistan. On Saturday, thousands of angry tribesmen protested in Khar, headquarters of the Bajaur tribal area, where they attacked a government building and ransacked the offices of two foreign NGOs, all the while chanting anti-US slogans. Gunshots and tear gas had to be used to disperse the mob. On Sunday there were protests in other cities: the biggest demonstration, with some 10,000 people, taking place in the southern port city of Karachi. A call for a nationwide strike, backed by all the opposition parties, was issued by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of Islamist parties.
Popular Pakistani anger at the bombing came as no surprise: the US-led war on terror is deeply unpopular in Pakistan. This anger is also directed at President Musharraf, seen by many to be acting at the behest of the Americans. The problem for the Pakistani government is that it faces strong pressure from the international community, and particularly from Washington, to crack down on extremist groups operating in the country. A key demand made of President Musharraf has been that the notorious tribal belt bordering Afghanistan be cleared of militants. The US suspects that many former Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are taking shelter in the region. Under US pressure, the Pakistani army has launched several offensives in the tribal areas, bringing it into conflict with local tribesmen. Both the army and tribesmen resent the US army intrusion in their region and are sympathetic to the Al-Qaeda/Taliban cause.
US troops on the Afghan side of the border have also been engaged in missions to attack militant forces. They complain that Taliban/Al-Qaeda fighters often escape capture by fleeing across the border into Pakistan. Under the terms of the Pakistani agreement for cooperation with the US, American troops are not allowed to operate on Pakistani soil. This means they cannot engage in 'hot pursuit' across the Pakistan border. In practice, however, there are allegations that US forces have been doing just that -- provoking anger among locals. A week before the Damadola incident, coalition troops from Afghanistan crossed into North Waziristan and captured two tribesmen; shortly after, the area was bombed by US planes and eight civilians were killed.
Opposition legislators, who have called for a debate in the National Assembly about the latest bombing, accuse the government of failing to take strong action over the North Waziristan bombing. They claim that if the government had lodged a strong protest, the Damadola bombing would not have taken place. Keen to appease public anger, the Pakistani government did in fact launch a strong protest on this occasion. The US ambassador in Islamabad was summoned to the Foreign Office for a dressing down.
Local tribesmen as well as the Pakistan government strongly denied the presence of Al-Zawahiri, or any foreign fighters in the village. "This is a big lie... Only our family members died in the attack," said Shah Zaman, a jeweller who lost two sons and a daughter in the attack. "They dropped bombs from planes and we were in no position to stop them... or to tell them we are innocent. I don't know [Al-Zawahiri]. He was not at my home. No foreigner was at my home when the planes came and dropped bombs."
Official US reaction has been rather subdued: the military has denied carrying out the attack and it appears that the operation to kill Al-Zawahiri was ordered by the CIA. Unofficial statements, however, indicate that while Washington regrets any loss of innocent life, it will not be changing its tactics. Speaking on "Face the Nation", Senator John McCain said: "We apologise, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again."
Information Minister Sheikh Rashid has been assuring the Pakistani public of precisely the opposite. Addressing a press conference in Peshawar, he said Pakistan "will not allow such incidents to recur". A Foreign Ministry press release said: "Our armed forces have undertaken large-scale operations against the foreign militants and it remains our responsibility to protect our territory from outside intrusion".
President Musharraf, meantime, has taken another approach to appeasing public anger. While he condemned the Damadola bombing, he stressed that it was the responsibility of the Pakistani people -- specifically of the tribesmen in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan -- to find and hand over any foreign militants, and not allow them to take shelter among them. His implication was that if Pakistanis carried out the task themselves, there would be no need or justification for US troops to enter the fray. "If we kept sheltering foreign terrorists here... our future will not be good," he said in a speech broadcast on state television.
The US is becoming increasingly desperate to find Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and the rest of the Al-Qaeda leadership. Al-Zawahiri's periodic video broadcasts serve as a constant source of embarrassment: a reminder of US failure to crush Al-Qaeda despite years of trying. This means that US pressure on Pakistan to cleanse the tribal belt, and US willingness to undertake this task itself, will not abate and President Musharraf will have to maintain his difficult balancing act.