ISLAMABAD — Pakistan threatened Tuesday to pull back troops from the Afghan border in response to US aid cuts, defying American demands to open new fronts in the war on Al-Qaeda and escalating tensions with Washington.
“I think the next step is, the government or the armed forces will move the soldiers from the border areas,” Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told the English-language Express 24/7 television.
“If at all things become difficult, we will just get our armed forces back.”
The United States confirmed Sunday that it had decided to withhold a third of its annual $2.7 billion security assistance to Islamabad, bringing relations to a new low after the covert American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Cuts of $800 million reportedly include about $300 million used to reimburse Pakistan for some costs of deploying more than 100,000 soldiers along the Afghan border, a hotbed of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
“We cannot afford to keep our military… it costs you extra amount of money when you are having soldiers in the mountains, so we will definitely use that tool,” Mukhtar said.
The military did not respond to a message from AFP seeking confirmation about the threatened drawdown.
In Pakistan, the military makes operational decisions independently of the civilian government and the defence minister is normally only informed rather than consulted.
Although Mukhtar has previously made statements that did not come to fruition, his remarks are significant at a time when public relations between Islamabad and Washington are at an all-time low since the war on terror began.
Pakistan’s seemingly powerful military was humiliated by the bin Laden raid, which invited allegations of incompetence and complicity, while Washington has increasingly demanded decisive action against terror networks.
Although Pakistan had said Monday it would continue to fight without US cash, analysts warned aid cuts would discourage commanders from opening fresh fronts, particularly against those considered American rather than Pakistani enemies.
On Tuesday, the military reiterated that Pakistan would fight “the menace of terrorism in our own national interest using our own resources”.
In the post-bin Laden backlash, some in Pakistan have looked increasingly towards China, the country’s main arms supplier, who on Tuesday pledged continued support for Islamabad, albeit without listing any specifics.
Pakistani officials said three drone strikes that followed the US announcement of aid cuts killed 31 militants in the tribal belt on the Afghan border, which Washington has called the global headquarters of Al-Qaeda.
The drone attacks destroyed militant vehicles and compounds in Waziristan, where American officials have wanted Pakistan to launch an operation against the Haqqani network, whose fighters are a deadly US enemy in eastern Afghanistan.
Intelligence officials in Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, said foreigners were among those killed in the second attack.
Pakistani officials use the term “foreigners” for Al-Qaeda-linked Arab, Central Asians and other non-Pakistani fighters.
At least six militants were killed on Tuesday in the third strike, which took place in New Adda area, 35 kilometres (21 miles) west of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan tribal district.
The United States does not officially confirm drone attacks. The covert programme is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment and relations with the United States have nosedived over the bin Laden raid.
Tensions are also on the rise between Afghanistan and Pakistan over violence along the border.
Pakistani officials said two mortar shells fired from Afghanistan struck a house, killing two women and wounding 12 other people.
In recent weeks tensions have sharply risen on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, which villagers say have been bombarded with hundreds of rocket attacks.
Pakistan says it may have fired a few accidental rounds into Afghanistan while pursuing militants and also accuses Afghan insurgents of crossing the border to attack security checkpoints.