ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's army chief, responding to a series of U.S. military strikes into Pakistan's tribal areas, pledged Friday to safeguard the country's territorial integrity and claimed the full backing of Pakistan's elected civilian government.
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani issued the statement after U.S. forces Friday apparently launched yet another missile attack against a house in Pakistan's tribal area, killing at least 12 people.
Kayani spoke at the end of a two-day meeting of top commanders to consider how to respond to the U.S. incursions when the latest attack occurred. Before the meeting began, Kayani described a U.S. ground assault into Pakistani territory as "reckless." His statement at the end of the meeting appeared to warn of a possible direct confrontation with U.S. forces if the incursions continue.
"All elements of the National Power under the new democratic leadership will safeguard the territorial integrity of Pakistan with full support and backing of the people of Pakistan," the army chief of staff said. He said there was a "complete unanimity of views" between the elected government and the Pakistan army.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated there would be no change in U.S. operations, but he didn't confirm the incursions into Pakistan. "Our commanders have the authorities they need to protect our troops in Afghanistan," he told reporters. Other U.S. officials discounted Kayani's statement as aimed at Pakistan's domestic audience.
The Pakistani rhetoric, suggesting a possible rupture between the two countries, comes as U.S.-led NATO forces are losing ground in Afghanistan and insurgent forces there are making use of their sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas. Meanwhile, the U.S. military leadership disclosed this week that the United States has yet to develop a strategy that will focus on Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.
Pakistani public opinion was already incensed by the U.S. airstrikes into its territory, which have intensified over the last few weeks and have killed civilians as well as militants. That turned to uproar after the first ground assault by U.S. commandos onto its soil earlier this month, in South Waziristan, another part of the tribal territory that runs along the Afghan border. The country was stunned over a New York Times report this week President Bush had secretly authorized the new policy of incursions into Pakistan in July.
Asif Ali Zardari, head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party who last week became the first democratically elected president of Pakistan in nine years, has tried to challenge public opinion by declaring the U.S.-led fight against terror as "Pakistan's own war."
But his aides privately admitted that the task of selling the alliance with Washington had become much harder as a result of the American incursion. The biggest opposition group, Nawaz Sharif's party, demanded Friday that Zardari call a special session of parliament as "the nation is under threat of war" from the United States.
"The democratic government is caught between a proverbial rock and a hard place," said Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. "Mr. Zardari and the People's Party wants to be tough with the militants but they do not have support in the country, where there is growing anti-American sentiment largely fueled by the indiscriminate missile attacks and cross-border incursions."
But Washington may have been equally disturbed by evidence this week of the links between notorious Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and al Qaida. When a U.S. missile, fired from an unmanned aircraft, hit Haqqani's compound in North Waziristan, four al Qaida operatives were reported to be among the dead. Haqqani is also close to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence military spy agency, putting the country's security establishment in an indirect relationship with the terror group.
A further domestic danger for Islamabad is a schism in the army. Military analysts believe Kayani may have given tacit consent for limited ground raids, but it is unlikely that a majority of the corps commanders, each of whom controls thousands of men and from whom the army chief derives his authority, are on board.
"What would probably endanger him (Kayani) most is if he continued to support, or be viewed as supporting, incursions, and they appeared ineffective and corps commanders were increasingly unhappy," said Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp, a private U.S. research organization. "If this split widens, then I think you'll get a very serious problem."
U.S. and NATO commanders have made clear that the war against the Taliban cannot be won in Afghanistan if militants continue to enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal belt. But U.S. hit-and-withdraw raids like the operation seen in North Waziristan last week can only eliminate a few Taliban or al Qaida leaders. They cannot clear the territory of militants or hold it. That would require the Pakistan army to act, which may be the response the Americans are trying to provoke.
"Why are the Americans coming to Pakistan? Because they are being threatened, because of missiles being fired against them from Pakistani territory," said Farrukh Saleem, executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an independent think tank in Islamabad. "Either we take care of them (the militants) or they will have to."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)