Civilian rule not threatened in Pak: US

Nov 30, -0001
WASHINGTON: Pakistan's president may face "challenges" but the United States does not believe civilian rule is threatened in the nuclear-armed country, the commander of U.S. forces in the region said Wednesday.

"There clearly are challenges, potential challenges, to President Zardari, but again I don't see the prospect or the desire for anyone to change civilian rule," said General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command.

"I actually don't think the current challenges imperil civilian rule," he said.

The stability of President Asif Ali Zardari's government, which has launched an offensive against extremists in the border region of South Waziristan, could prove critical to U.S. efforts to roll back the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

But with doubts growing over Zardari's political future, the Obama administration is focussing on developing relationships with "institutions" rather than individuals, said Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew, speaking at the same hearing with Petraeus.

"The difficulties of maintaining a stable, civilian government in Pakistan are not new," Lew told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We have been working with the current government to try and help build the institutions and not just the people so that there is the ability to rely on ongoing relationships regardless of the leadership," he added.

Zardari, the widow of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, took over from the military government of President Pervez Musharraf who came to power in a coup in 1999.


But there are strong doubts that Zardari will survive politically and there have been relentless attacks against Pakistan, with al Qaeda-linked militants penetrating security outside key buildings.

The United States has sought closer ties with Pakistan by a proposed tripling of civilian aid to the nuclear-armed country and seeking greater military cooperation to fight extremists.

Islamabad has been rattled by the decision to increase by 30,000 the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, fearing it will lead to a spike in extremists crossing over from its neighbour as they flee more intense military action.

Petraeus said he had been to Pakistan four or five times in recent months and that the U.S. military was closely coordinating its actions with Islamabad.

"That is why we are working very hard to coordinate ... so that they know what our operational campaign is and can anticipate and be there with a catcher's mitt or an anvil, or whatever it may be, to greet these individuals," he added.

Pakistan's military was once a staunch supporter of Afghan militants in their fight against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and has been accused of not doing enough to tackle Taliban insurgents on its own soil, a question raised by lawmakers again on Wednesday.

"The most salient question, however, is whether improvements on the ground in Afghanistan will mean much if Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan remain or if instability within Pakistan intensifies," said Senator Dick Lugar, the committee's ranking Republican.

Petraeus praised their efforts in Waziristan and the Swat regions, but he said Washington had to be realistic.

"You can only stick so many short sticks into so many hornets nests at one time," Petraeus said. "There are limits on their (the Pakistanis') capacity."

Speaking to reporters afterward, Petraeus said U.S. troops could not cross over into Pakistan to follow insurgents. "No ... you're talking about a sovereign country," he said.

As part of its Afghanistan strategy, Washington plans to increase pilotless drone attacks in areas where insurgents are hiding, a move likely to meet popular opposition in Pakistan.

Lugar said there were reports that Taliban leaders were moving out of remote regions and into crowded Pakistani cities such as Karachi in response to the threat of more attacks.

"If such reports are true, the United States will have even fewer options in pursuing Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, absent the active help of Pakistani authorities," Lugar said. AGENCIES




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