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Clinton faces Pakistani ire over drone attacks

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came face-to-face with Pakistani anger in a series of public appearances on the final day of her three-day visit.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton faced sharp rebukes from Pakistani audiences Friday, including one woman who accused the U.S. of conducting "executions without trial" in aerial drone strikes. Slapping back, Clinton questioned Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorists.

"Somebody, somewhere in Pakistan must know where these people are," Clinton said in an exchange almost as blunt as her exasperated comments a day earlier that Pakistani officials lacked the will to target al-Qaida.

Her stormy three-day visit, rocked at the start by a terrorist blast in Peshawar that killed 105 Pakistanis, revealed clear signs of strain between the two nations despite months of public insistence that they were on the same wavelength in the war on terror.

By speaking bluntly about the Pakistanis' failure to find and eliminate top al-Qaida leaders — eight years after they were run out of Afghanistan — Clinton appeared to be trying to prod the Pakistanis to go beyond their current military campaign against internal militants in South Waziristan.

Pakistan's army recently launched a major offensive in the border area to clear out Pakistani Taliban elements from hideouts there. But two earlier army efforts made little progress there — leaving questions about the military's resolve to tackle al-Qaida head-on.

Clinton's tough talk on Pakistan's apparent inability to root out al-Qaida also appeared to be aimed at reminding the country's civilian and military leaders that the assault on Pakistani Taliban elements in South Waziristan would not be finished unless al-Qaida too was targeted. She noted explicitly that the Taliban militants there are "in league with" the terror group that fomented the Sept. 11 attacks.

"After South Waziristan is finished, the Pakistanis will have to go on to try to root out other terrorist groups, or we're going to be back facing the same threats," she warned.

'We've been fighting your war'
During the visit and talks with Pakistani leaders, Clinton found herself repeatedly on the defensive from ordinary Pakistanis brimming with resentment toward U.S. foreign policy.

During a live broadcast of an interview before a predominantly female audience of several hundred, Clinton struggled to avoid describing the classified U.S. effort to target terrorists, and still try to explain the efforts of American foreign policy.

One woman asked Clinton how she would define terrorism.

"Is it the killing of people in drone attacks?" the woman asked. Then she asked if Clinton considered both the U.S. missile strikes and militant bombings like the one that killed more than 100 civilians in the city of Peshawar earlier in the week as acts of terrorism.

"No, I do not," Clinton replied.

Another man said bluntly: "Please forgive me, but I would like to say we've been fighting your war."

Image: Hillary Clinton
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks with Pakistani tribal people during her meeting them in Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday, Oct. 30, 2009. Clinton came face-to-face Friday with Pakistani anger over U.S. aerial drone attacks in tribal areas along the Afghan border, a strategy that U.S. officials say has succeeded in killing key terrorist leaders.(AP Photo/Irfan Mahmood)Irfan Mahmood / AP

But she was also on an offensive of her own, coiled with pent-up frustration about Pakistan's incremental handling of terrorists. The sentiment was quickly echoed by other U.S. officials, including on Friday in Washington by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

As she sparred with Pakistani citizens and journalists, Clinton faced sharp questions about the secret U.S. program that uses unmanned aircraft to launch missiles to kill terrorists along the porous, ungoverned border with Afghanistan.

But she refused to go into detail about the classified strikes that have killed both key terror leaders and bystanders, long a source of outrage among Pakistan's population despite an equally deadly campaign of militant-spawned bombings.

Asked repeatedly about the drones, a subject that involves highly classified CIA operations, Clinton said only that "there is a war going on." She added that the Obama administration is committed to helping Pakistan defeat the insurgents.

'Somebody ... just know'
Before flying Friday to the United Arab Emirates for consultations with Palestinian leaders on Mideast peace prospects, Clinton appeared to slightly temper her earlier comments that some Pakistani officials knew where al-Qaida's upper echelon has been hiding and had done little to target them.

"We don't know where, and I have no information that they know where, but this is a big government. You know, it's a government on many levels. Somebody, somewhere in Pakistan must know where these people are. And we'd like to know because we view them as really at the core of the terrorist threat that threatens Pakistan, threatens Afghanistan, threatens us, threatens people all over the world," Clinton said.

A day earlier she had been more explicit in her skepticism, telling a Pakistani journalist in Lahore: "I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to. Maybe that's the case. Maybe they're not gettable. I don't know."

A top Pakistan official insisted Friday that his country is fighting back against militants. "We have decided to fight back," said Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who joined Clinton at a police training center.

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