ISLAMABAD – The new director of the CIA held high-level talks in Pakistan on Saturday after a provincial leader warned against expanding U.S. missile strikes on al-Qaida and Taliban targets inside the country’s thinly policed border with Afghanistan.
Leon Panetta arrived in Pakistan on his first overseas trip since taking office as the Obama administration seeks a strategy to turn around the faltering war against Taliban militants in neighboring Afghanistan.
The United States is concerned that political turmoil in Pakistan is distracting its government and army from combating Islamist insurgents threatening the stability of the nuclear-armed country and the surrounding region.
Panetta arrived from New Delhi, where Indian officials said they discussed the November terrorist attack in Mumbai, which has been blamed on a Pakistan-based militant group.
In a meeting with the CIA chief Saturday evening, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani stressed the need to resolve his country’s 60-year dispute with India over the divided Kashmir region so that Pakistan can “singularly focus its attention in eradicating the menaces of extremism and terrorism,” Gilani’s office said in a statement.
Panetta expressed satisfaction with bilateral cooperation and said Washington was urgently lining up more economic assistance for Pakistan as well as equipment and training for its security forces, it said.
Neither Panetta, who later met Pakistan’s president and Interior Ministry chief, nor the U.S. Embassy made any public comment.
In a sign of U.S. frustration at Islamabad’s failure to eradicate militant safe havens in its territory, unmanned aircraft operated by the CIA are believed to have carried out dozens of missile attacks in Pakistan’s wild tribal regions along the Afghan border since last year.
U.S. officials say the missile attacks have killed several senior figures in al-Qaida, which Washington worries is plotting new Sept. 11-style attacks in the West, and have significantly weakened the terror network’s organization.
However, Pakistani leaders publicly protest the strikes, arguing that they kill too many civilians, stoke anti-American sentiment and undermine the government’s own efforts to neutralize extremists.
The New York Times reported this past week that U.S. officials are weighing extending the missile strikes into Baluchistan province in pursuit of insurgent leaders who have moved south in search of safety.
Western and Afghan officials have long suspected that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and other members of the Taliban government ousted by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 have found refuge in or near the city of Quetta, Baluchistan’s capital.
The head of the Baluchistan provincial government insisted Friday that Mullah Omar was in Afghanistan and there was no justification for missile attacks in Baluchistan. The provincial assembly passed a resolution on Saturday demanding that the federal government prevent any such attacks.
Pakistani politics have been roiled by a bitter power struggle between President Asif Ali Zardari and the opposition leader that has dragged in the judiciary.
On Saturday, the retirement of Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar opened the way for the reinstatement of a judge ousted by former military leader Pervez Musharraf and championed by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
Dogar was sworn in as chief justice after Musharraf declared emergency rule and purged the court in 2007 to halt challenges to his plans to extend his rule.
Musharraf was eventually pushed from office in 2008 elections by a coalition that vowed to reinstate the ousted judges, who had become symbols of a movement to restore democracy.
However, Zardari balked at bringing back independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry until opposition parties and activist lawyers threatened protests in the capital last week.
Political tensions are high because of a Supreme Court ruling last month that disqualified Sharif and his politician brother Shahbaz from elected office because of convictions dating from Musharraf’s rule.
After the ruling, Zardari dismissed the administration in Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest and wealthiest province, which had been led by Shahbaz Sharif.
The government has since appealed the ruling but is also wrangling with Sharif’s group and a bloc of former Musharraf supporters over the makeup of a new ruling coalition in the province.