KEY corps commanders of Pakistan’s 600,000-strong army issued orders last night to retaliate against “invading” US forces that enter the country to attack militant targets.
The move has plunged relations between Islamabad and Washington into deep crisis over how to deal with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban
What amounts to a dramatic order to “kill the invaders”, as one senior officer put it last night, was disclosed after the commanders – who control the army’s deployments at divisional level – met at their headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi under the chairmanship of army chief and former ISI spy agency boss Ashfaq Kayani.
Leading English-language newspaper The News warned in an editorial that the US determination to attack targets inside Pakistan was likely to be “the best recruiting sergeant that the extremists ever had”, with even “moderates” outraged by it.
The “retaliate and kill” order came amid reports of unprecedentedly fierce fighting in the Bajaur Agency of Pakistan’s tribal areas, an al-Qa’ida stronghold frequently mentioned as the most likely lair of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
At the same time, a series of brutal killings by the militants were reported.
The beheaded bodies of two of nearly 40 police recruits abducted a week ago were found near the town of Hangu. Their discovery follows warnings that the recruits would be put to death, one by one, unless Pakistan stopped its big offensive in Bajaur.
The bodies of three local Bajaur men who had been shot in the neck were also found yesterday. Notes were attached declaring the men to have been spies.
In a day of what appears to have been unrelenting combat in Bajaur, helicopter gunships, heavy artillery and tanks were used to strike al-Qa’ida targets.
Officials said at least 100 militants had been killed, bringing the number who have died in the six weeks since the offensive was launched to well over 700. The figure is regarded as remarkable, given that NATO forces in Afghanistan seldom achieve a “kill” rate of more than about 30 in any single operation. Many of those killed are reported to have been “foreign fighters” – mostly Arabs and Central Asians, who have been flooding into Pakistan’s tribal areas to join al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.
Ground troops are said to have moved into key areas formerly controlled by the militants, despite a promised ceasefire marking the holy month of Ramadan.
“We launched strikes against militant hideouts in Bajaur and destroyed several compounds they were using,” an official was quoted as saying.
The order to retaliate against incursions by “foreign troops”, directed specifically at the 120,000 Pakistani soldiers deployed along the border with Afghanistan, follows US President George W. Bush’s authorisation of US attacks in Pakistan.
Washington’s determination to launch such attacks has caused outrage across Pakistan, with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani last night strongly backing a warning by General Kayani that Pakistan would not allow its territorial integrity to be violated.
The “kill” order against invading forces, and the sharp deterioration in relations with the US, has far-reaching implications for the war on terror.
Anger at all levels in Pakistani society was summed up last night in The News, not normally sympathetic to the militants.
“There is an escalating sense of furious impotence among the ordinary people of Pakistan,” the newspaper said.
“Many – perhaps most – of them are strongly opposed to the spread of Talibanisation and extremist influence across the country: people who might be described as ‘moderates’.
“Many of them have no sympathy for the mullahs and their burning of girls’ schools and their medieval mindset.
“But if you bomb a moderate sensibility often enough, it has a tendency to lose its sense of objectivity and to feel driven in the direction of extremism.
“If America bombs moderate sensibilities often enough, you may find that its actions are the best recruiting sergeant that the extremists ever had.”