U.S. considering raids into Pakistan’s Baluchistan-NYT

March 18, 2009

For some months now there has been a steady drumbeat of reports in the media saying that while the United States had made significant breakthroughs in its covert military campaign in Pakistan’s autonomous tribal areas, it could not continue to ignore the vast province of Baluchistan to the south where the Afghan Taliban leadership is based.

This is where the Taliban’s reclusive, one-eyed leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, along with his deputies in  the Quetta shura, is believed to be orchestrating the insurgency in southern Afghanistan.  And this where the United States must target its covert war inside Pakistan carried out largely through missile strikes by unmanned aircraft, U.S. generals and policy makers have begun saying

The New York Times, in a report just ahead of the Afghan-Pakistan security review, says the Obama administration is considering just that: expanding its covert war to strike at Taliban sanctuaries in and around Quetta.

“Some American officials say the [drone] strikes in the tribal areas have forced some leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to flee south toward Quetta, making them more vulnerable. In separate reports, groups led by both Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of American forces in the region, and Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, a top White House official on Afghanistan, have recommended expanding American operations outside the tribal areas if Pakistan cannot root out the strengthening insurgency.”

According to Danger Room,  the United States has launched missile strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas six times in the past two months, making clear its intention to continue  the previous administration’s policy of taking the battle to al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.

But widening the war? Striking Baluchistan would constitute the deepest U.S. advance yet into Pakistani territory and be of a significantly different level than targetting the FATA.

In FATA, you could argue these were remote “ungoverned spaces” led largely by local tribals which the much more powerful Taliban  and al Qaeda had exploited. Even then, arguing these were a legitimate target for U.S. missile strikes would be difficult to justify in any international court of law, several experts on this discussion on America’s NPR said.

But Quetta? This is the provincial capital and the seat of an elected government. Every U.S. incursion even in the FATA reverberates through Pakistan and the New York Times itself reports a U.S. official as saying that “an expanding U.S. role insidePakistan may be more than anyone there can stomach.”

The United States is also simultaneously considering a huge increase in aid to Pakistan, which some may see as intended to soften the blow of an intensified military campaign, the Gulf newspaper the National said.

John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, and Richard Lugar, the top Republican on that panel, are expected to introduce legislation soon that would triple non-military aid to Pakistan to US$1.5 billion annually over the next five years. They have proposed another $7.5bn in assistance for the five years beyond that, the paper said.

But it also noted there would be vigorous debate in the U.S. Congress over the aid amount as well as over what strings should be attached.

[Photos of trucks burnt outside Peshawar and a protest in Quetta)

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