US officials expect stiffer Pakistani resolve in wake of Taliban attack

US officials expect stiffer Pakistani resolve in wake of Taliban attack
A soldier escorts schoolchildren from the Army Public School that is under attack by Taliban gunmen in Peshawar, December 16, 2014. Taliban gunmen in Pakistan took hundreds of students and teachers hostage on Tuesday in a school in the northwestern city of Peshawar, military officials said.

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK - The United States offered further counterterrorism help to Pakistan on Tuesday after a deadly Taliban attack on a school, and US officials said privately they expect stronger Pakistani resolve in fighting the insurgents.

President Barack Obama said the raid, which killed at least 132 students and nine staff at a military-run high school in the city of Peshawar, was an act of "depravity" and he promised that Washington would back Pakistan against the militants.

But the raid underscores regional instability at a time when the United States is preparing to withdraw most of its troops by year-end from neighbouring Afghanistan, where attacks have intensified by Afghan Taliban fighters who share the radical Islamist ideology of their Pakistani brethren.

"We stand with the people of Pakistan and reiterate the commitment of the United States to support the government in its efforts to combat terrorism and extremism and to promote peace and stability in the region," Obama said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States was offering counterterrorism assistance to Pakistan but declined to provide specifics.

The United States has given Pakistan US$18 billion (S$23.4 billion) in security aid since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service. It has also used unmanned drones to kill hundreds of militants there, though civilian deaths in the strikes have stoked public anger.

US officials said privately that they now expect a tougher crackdown on the Taliban by Pakistani security forces in retaliation for Tuesday's attack on the school, where many of the students were children of military personnel.

But Washington stopped short of openly calling for stronger Pakistani military action, mindful that this might backfire by making the army appear to be doing America's bidding in a country where anti-US sentiment runs high.

Washington and Islamabad have long been uneasy allies, though relations have improved since 2011 when US commandos killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a raid that Pakistan called a violation of its sovereignty.

"We want to be behind the scenes on this," said Shamila Chaudhary, a former top Obama adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan. "It doesn't help the Pakistanis if the US is public about this."

PAKISTANI OFFENSIVE

The Pakistani military has recently stepped up an offensive in the country's tribal areas against the Taliban, and the militants said Tuesday's attack was to take revenge against the government for "targeting our families and females."

A US counterterrorism source acknowledged that the Pakistan Taliban had been under "intense pressure". But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was sceptical whether the Pakistani military had been doing all that it could.

The Pakistani military has long been accused of being too lenient towards Islamist militants who critics say are used to carry out the army's bidding in places like Kashmir and Afghanistan. The military denies the accusations.

After the school attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to "take revenge for each and every drop of our children's blood that was spilt today."

Despite persistent US concerns, Washington has made Islamabad one of the top recipients of US aid.

A defence authorisation bill passed by Congress just three days ago approved US$1 billion for 2015. But US$300 million of the money is subject to conditions, including certification by the Pentagon that Pakistan has acted in Pakistan's North Waziristan border area to disrupt the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, a powerful faction that has attacked US forces in Afghanistan.

Chaudhary said another way the United States can assist Pakistan is targeting militants who cross the border into Afghanistan to flee Pakistani forces. She said the withdrawal of most US and NATO forces from eastern Afghanistan has made the area safe for Pakistani militants.

Despite that, Obama remains committed to his timetable for withdrawing most US forces from Afghanistan, Earnest said. But he said the Pakistan attack "underscores the need to do all that we can to strengthen and support Afghan security forces."

Analysts say the Pakistan attack shows there is still cause for concern.

"The larger issue is that it underscores the general instability of the Afghanistan-Pakistan corridor just at a time when the US is trying to leave," said Vali Nasr, a former Obama adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan and now dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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