Pakistan fears it may pay price of U.S. Afghan surge

ISLAMABAD Thu Dec 3, 2009 4:42am EST

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan has sparked fears in Pakistan it will lead to more U.S. drone attacks and military involvement in its border areas, possibly further destabilizing Washington's ally.

Many Pakistan analysts and security officials fear an emboldened Afghan Taliban could then capitalize on Obama's plans to start withdrawing troops in 18 months by waiting it out in Pakistan, which already faces militants on its own soil.

The Pakistan government has cautiously welcomed Obama's plans to send another 30,000 troops to battle a strengthening Taliban insurgency. But it came with a caveat -- Islamabad warned Washington on Wednesday of the need to avoid "adverse fallout."

The concern for many is that when extra U.S. troops land in south Afghanistan the Taliban will just make a tactical retreat across the porous border to Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.

That would up the stakes in Pakistan where its army has launched an offensive in the border region of South Waziristan. The campaign has already sparked a backlash of suicide attacks in cities, raising fears for the country's stability.

With the Afghan winter traditionally making guerrilla warfare harder, there is effectively one fighting season left -- the summer of 2010 -- before U.S. troops may start to scale down.

Pakistan analysts say that next summer U.S. military planners primed for war may get increasingly frustrated they cannot bring the battle to a Taliban just sitting across the border.

"In that survival game, the Taliban may cross into Pakistan. Now there is a timetable, they might just avoid combat," said Tanvir Ahmed Khan, a former Pakistani foreign secretary and now chairman of the Institute of Strategic Studies.

"If that comes true, the Americans would be really tempted to go after them at a scale we haven't seen before, mostly likely with drones and perhaps also with special operations."

That timeline worry runs deep in Pakistan, mindful Washington effectively abandoned Pakistan after it helped push the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989, despite an influx of refugees in the border region that fueled further militancy.

"We think giving the timeline of 2011 is not a wise decision because if the Taliban are wise enough they will stop fighting for now and they will wait for U.S, forces to withdraw and then play havoc," a senior Pakistan government security official said.

U.S. FRUSTRATION

There are signs of U.S. frustration even before the surge is implemented. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week that Pakistan had to do more against militants.

But in a country where anti-American sentiment runs deep, increasing drone attacks is a risky tactic that could spark further popular opposition to U.S. involvement in Pakistan just as unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari faces calls to quit.

Pakistan officially objects to the U.S. drone strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and run the risk of bolstering militancy because of civilian casualties.

U.S. officials say missile strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to decry the attacks in public.

The CIA-operated drones have already been increasingly used. Nearly 50 drone air strikes in northwestern border regions this year have killed about 415 people, including many foreign militants, according to officials and residents.

But it is not just a rise in drone attacks, but the widening of the war geographically that worries Pakistanis.

Talat Masood, former army general and Pakistani columnist, said the surge may force an influx of fighters and refugees into Baluchistan, widening the war against militants within Pakistan.

That could destabilize a province already hit by a low-level separatist insurgency.

The New York Times, quoting anonymous administration officials, said Obama planned to increase the number of drone attacks and U.S. spies in Pakistan, including targeting Taliban leaders thought to be hiding in Baluchistan.

But Pakistan has not yet agreed to the plan, the report said.

"It looks that a case is being built that by raising troop level, they want to push militants to Pakistan and then withdraw and put the onus on Pakistan to catch Osama bin Laden and others," said Mehmood Shah, former security chief of the tribal areas.

"I think they will intensify their covert operations."

While analysts say it is unlikely U.S. special forces would enter Pakistan given nationalist sensitives, it highlights the deep distrust felt for Washington.

"Pakistan may be the worst victim of the surge ... If things start to go wrong for Obama, Pakistan could easily be made into a scapegoat," said Dr. Riffat Hussein, head of the department of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

"Pakistan will be now preparing for the end-game when the U.S. withdraws," he said. "Then you are back to the old game."

(Editing by Michael Georgy and Jerry Norton)