By Rob Crilly for The Telegraph
Pakistan has warned it will withdraw troops from the Afghan border where they are fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked insurgents if the US does not reinstate $800m in military assistance which has been suspended amid a worsening diplomatic row.
The cash includes $300m to reimburse the Pakistan military for deploying troops in the mountainous tribal areas close to Afghanistan.
Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar, the country’s defence minister, said without it Pakistan could not afford to keep troops at 1,100 checkpoints near the mountainous border.
“The next step would be that the government or the armed forces will pull back the forces from the border areas,” he told the Express 24/7 news channel. “We cannot afford to keep military out in the mountains for such a long period.”
Officials say 147,000 troops are deployed in the tribal areas, where they are engaged in operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda cells.
Relations between the two countries have been fraught ever since they were forced into an awkward alliance in the aftermath of 9/11. This year they have plunged to new depths.
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Pakistan’s military officers are furious that the Pentagon did not inform them of a covert raid to kill or capture Osama bin Laden in May in the town of Abbottabad, only 30 miles from the capital Islamabad.
Since then they have stepped up condemnation of CIA drone strikes against terror suspects and expelled American military trainers, as they try noisily to distract domestic attention from their own failure to find bin Laden or spot the American helicopters as they flew through Pakistani air space.
In return, US officials have questioned Pakistan’s commitment to tackling militants and accused the government of assassinating a troublesome journalist.
At the weekend it emerged that the Pentagon was to end a third of its annual $2.7bn assistance to the Pakistan military.
In Washington, Colonel David Lapan, Pentagon spokesman, said the military aid could be resumed if Pakistan increased the number of visas for US personnel and reinstated the training missions.
However, analysts in Islamabad said such threats would be counterproductive and warned of an anti-American backlash.
“The US needs to treat Pakistan as a country it’s not trying to bully into submission,” said Cyril Almeida, a columnist with Dawn newspaper.
In the meantime, the US has begun using land routes through Central Asia to resupply troops in Afghanistan in case Pakistan shuts the Khyber Pass to convoys carrying food and fuel.
A fresh wave of drone attacks may also exacerbate tension. At least 45 suspected militants were killed by missiles in Pakistan’s northwest, according to local intelligence officials on Tuesday, one of the largest death tolls to date in the controversial air bombing campaign.