ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The furor intensified Friday over Washington’s decision to pursue Islamic militant targets inside Pakistan, with opposition lawmakers threatening the country could pull out of the war on terror if the U.S. refuses to respect its borders.
About 100 protesters burned American flags after the latest missile attack left at least 12 people dead in the North Waziristan region of the troubled northwest. Residents said they heard the sound of propeller-driven U.S. Predator drones circling overhead before the explosions.
President Bush secretly approved more aggressive cross-border operations in July, according to current and former American officials.
Since Aug. 13, there have been at least seven reported missile strikes as well as a raid by helicopter-borne U.S. commandos that Pakistani officials claim killed 15 civilians in tribally governed territory where the government has little control. The frontier region is considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Pakistan’s government and military have issued strong protests to Washington over the recent rash of cross-border strikes, although the criticism appeared to be mostly rhetoric aimed at soothing domestic anger, given that Pakistan has few options for stronger action.
Domestic media have criticized the government for not reacting more strongly, even suggesting the public criticism is just lip service and that a secret deal has been reached with Pakistan’s leadership allowing cross-border incursions.
Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has denied that and vowed to protect the country’s sovereignty “at all cost.”
Leaders, including new President Asif Ali Zardari, have reiterated their commitment to fighting violent Islamic extremism and have aired no threats to withdraw their cooperation.
However, they are sensitive to public opinion in Pakistan, which is hostile to U.S. policy in the region.
Agitation on the issue by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who heads the main opposition party and has a large popular following, could make it hard for Islamabad to maintain the close alliance with Washington forged by Zardari’s predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.
“We need at this time to make it clear to foreign countries that Pakistan will not tolerate such actions,” said Ahsan Iqbal, a lawmaker in Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party. “If it continues, then Pakistan can consider pulling out completely from this war on terror.”
Iqbal and another party leader called for an urgent parliament session to debate how Pakistan can respond.
“The parliament must be convened on a one-point agenda, because the nation is under a threat of war,” said lawmaker Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. “Irrespective of where the threat is, every inch of this country is sovereign. Every inch of this country is sacred.”
Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar said Pakistan’s armed forces were “ready to meet any such eventuality if this is repeated” and evoked Pakistan’s war against India in 1965.
Despite the strong language, parliament has few options beyond issuing a condemnation of cross-border raids and reiterating the country’s sovereignty.
Realistically, there’s not much Pakistan can do to stop the U.S. from mounting cross-border attacks, short of shooting down helicopters carrying allied forces. And breaking off relations would mean an end to billions of dollars in U.S. aid at a time when Pakistan’s economy badly needs foreign assistance.