The killing of three American soldiers in Pakistan at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban – when Pakistanis did not know about their presence – will create a furore in the country
By Ahmed Rashid in Lahore
President Asif Ali Zardari was already grappling with a severe economic crisis, unrest in Karachi where nearly 40 people have been killed in the past four days, a legal battle with the courts over corruption charges and demands from the opposition for him to resign.
The revelation will now create a major problem for his already beleaguered government.
The presence of US troops wandering around Pakistan will come as a shock to most Pakistanis. The soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb attack in Lower Dir, a former Taliban stronghold that had been secured by the Pakistan army only last year.
The Americans were most likely training members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps with secret permission from the government and the army. As the bombing was at the opening of a girls’ school, the incident also means that US soldiers have been helping the Pakistanis in development projects – something that was not known publicly.
The government in Islamabad has been under immense public and political pressure for refusing to own up to its secret deals with the US, while at the same time condemning the US and insisting that there was no American military presence in the country.
According to US congressmen, the Pakistani military has been secretly collaborating with the US in launching drone missile attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas where al-Qaeda and the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban are based. On Wednesday some 30 people were killed in the tribal areas after US drones fired some 18 missiles into Taliban compounds.
However the government condemns the Americans every time a drone missile is launched even though some of the drones are believed to be launched from a Pakistani airbase in Balochistan province.
Pakistan has consistently denied that US soldiers and the CIA were operating in Pakistan but it is widely believed that they have been present in the tribal areas to gather intelligence about al-Qaeda.
Last month another scandal erupted. The government denied the US security contractoe Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, was operating in Pakistan, but on a visit to Islamabad Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, admitted the compnay’s employees were present and were guarding US civilians.
The government and the army’s constant denials of the increased US presence in Pakistan has invariably been contradicted and so it proved again on Wednesday when the US emabssy announced the deaths of the three soldiers