Militants in Pakistan torched a tanker carrying fuel for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Friday, highlighting the vulnerability of the American-led mission in the landlocked country as Washington debates sending more troops. The attack came at a time of strained ties between Pakistan's civilian-led government, its powerful army and the United States over a proposed American aid bill that military chiefs and opposition lawmakers says interferes in the country's internal affairs.
The prospect of fresh political instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan as it battles al-Qaida and Taliban along the Afghan border will concern the United States, which sees Afghanistan and Pakistan as different theaters in the same war against Islamist militants. Pakistani Taliban have often targeted US-NATO supply convoys passing through northwest Pakistan for Afghanistan, though there have been less attacks reported recently. Most of the nonmilitary supplies for foreign troops in Afghanistan are unloaded at Karachi sea port and are then trucked in via the northwest, a militant stronghold.
Friday's pre-dawn attack took place close to the northwestern city of Peshawar, said Fazal Rabi, a police official. He said the tanker was attacked and torched at a gas station. There were no reports of injuries.
Attacks on the supply line have prompted US military planners to open other routes into Afghanistan from the north. There are currently about 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan fighting a resurgent Taliban. The top US commander in Afghanistan Gen Stanley McChrystal wants up to 40,000 more troops to take the fight to the militants, but not all US administration officials agree with escalating the eight-year-old war.
The government of President Asif Ali Zardari has hailed the US aid package, which would provide $1.5 billion a year over the next five years, tripling nonmilitary assistance to the country. It also authorizes "such sums as may be necessary" for counterterrorism assistance, but only of certain conditions are met. The legislation, which has been approved by the US Congress and awaits President Barack Obama's signature, makes US aid contingent on whether Pakistan's government maintains effective control over the military, including its budgets, the chain of command and top promotions. It also calls for yearly certifications that Pakistan is making a commitment to combating terrorist groups and cooperating in controlling proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In an unusual public statement, the army raised "serious concern" on Wednesday over the conditions, which they said impacted Pakistan's security interests.
US-based global intelligence company Stratfor said in a report that "through the aid package, the Obama administration is trying to alter the nature of the Pakistani state, a very ambitious project to say the least."
It said the military, which has ruled Pakistan for much of its 62 years, "had no intention of yielding without a struggle, which almost surely will result in increased instability." Farhatullah Babar, Zardari's chief spokesman, said previous US aid packages negotiated under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who led a military government for eight years beginning in 1999, contained similar clauses and the army never complained.
"Why this protest now?" he asked. "There are proper forums like the defense committee of the Cabinet and the Ministry of Defense for communication of such views ... why this was bypassed, I don't know."
He strongly defended the aid package, saying "there is nothing against the national interest in the bill."