On Washington Pakistan Overshadows Afghanistan on U.S. Agenda


WASHINGTON – When President Obama announced his new strategy in March for dealing with the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan, he declared that America’s once-grandiose goals in the region should be narrowed to taking aim at Al Qaeda. To get the job done, he was already sending upwards of 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and he promised to pour billions of dollars in aid into development programs in the region.

There was only one hitch: Al Qaeda doesn’t really live in Afghanistan. It survives largely over the border in Pakistan, where American boots on the ground will never be tolerated. “This is the logical flaw in an otherwise pretty sophisticated plan,” one of the participants in the White House debate said at the time. “We have to stabilize Afghanistan. But if the goal is to take out Al Qaeda and its friends, we’re putting our troops in the wrong country.”

But only five weeks later, what seemed like a fissure in the plan – a fissure Mr. Obama himself discussed and fully understood, his aides say – has opened into a canyon. As Mr. Obama prepares to meet at the White House on Wednesday with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the agenda has been overwhelmed by the drive that insurgents inside Pakistan are mounting for control of swaths of the country.

The original intention for the meeting was to find ways to accomplish something the Pakistanis and the Afghans have never been able to engineer, no matter how hard Washington has pushed them to: A coordinated military effort to squeeze the Taliban and other insurgents on both sides of their long, wild border. Suddenly, that seems like the lesser of two urgent problems.

“The possibility is now real that we will see a jihadist state emerge in Pakistan – not an inevitable outcome, not even the most likely, but a real possibility,” said Bruce Riedel, the Brookings Institution scholar who served as the co-author of Mr. Obama’s review.

“And that is the real strategic nightmare for the United States,” he added.

Important as Afghanistan is to the United States, he said, the events of the past few weeks focused American minds on Pakistan’s uniquely toxic cocktail.

“It’s where the far greater strategic risks lie,” said Mr. Riedel, a former intelligence officer who has long navigated the dangerous currents of South Asia. “It has more terrorists per square mile than anyplace else on earth, and it has a nuclear weapons program that is growing faster than anyplace else on earth.”

Or, as Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it on Monday, “this isn’t about ‘can do’ any more; this is about ‘must do.’ ”

So in the land of no good options, what are some of the possibilities that Mr. Obama can explore? What can he accomplish sitting down with a weak Pakistani leader who spent years dodging charges of corruption, and whose early support in Washington has quickly soured? Or with an even weaker Afghan leader who was once a favorite of the United States – both for his elegance and for his eloquence – but who many the Obama administration would now like to see eased out of office in the coming election?

Here are a few possibilities to watch for:

Speed Up Plan A The core of Mr. Obama’s strategy was to bet on a long-term solution: Retraining the Pakistani military to become an effective counterinsurgency force and pour billions of dollars and plenty of manpower into real nation-building efforts on both sides of the border, but particularly in the tribal areas that have become Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds – in short, to execute the Marshall Plan for the region that President George W. Bush first talked about in March 2002 but never executed.

According to administration officials, Mr. Obama is expected to promise to unlock nearly $1 billion in aid that the United States has promised but not yet delivered, and to announce a new training program for Pakistani soldiers, probably located in Kuwait so that American trainers need not set foot on Pakistani soil. But building schools and training soldiers takes time. And with the Taliban expansion threatening the country’s main East-West highway – the highway that leads to Islamabad – it is not clear that the long-term approach will address the immediate military emergency.

Step up Predator Attacks and Covert Ground Action Last summer Mr. Bush approved a covert plan allowing United States forces, for the first time, to use remotely piloted aircraft to attack not only Al Qaeda sites, but other insurgents that threaten either Afghanistan or Pakistan. President Obama continued that policy, but every proposed strike by the Predator drones has posed a awful choice: How do you blow up a house that has suspected terrorists in the basement if it also has seven-year-olds and their mothers in the living room? The popular anger in Pakistan about the drones has reached a fever pitch.

Mr. Obama’s aides have debated inviting the Pakistanis to participate the C.I.A.’s Predator program, actively managing the missions rather just permitting them to be mounted from a not-so-secret base on Pakistani territory. But many in the administration are hesitant, because past joint operations with Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have rarely worked.

“The question is whether the Taliban’s boldness has scared the Pakistanis enough to realize that they need our help,” one national security official involved in the debate said. “We don’t know the answer to that.”

There is similar concern about sending American special forces on missions deeper into Pakisitan, for fear of the political reaction if they are discovered operating inside Pakistan’s borders. (One of Mr. Bush’s aides put this problem pithily last summer when he asked, “How do you invade an ally?”)

Make Nuclear Arms the No. 1 Concern: In public, the administration says that no matter what inroads the Taliban make in Pakistan, the country’s nuclear arsenal is secure. “The Pakistani leadership and in particular the military is very focused on this,” Admiral Mullen said on Monday.

But when not speaking on the record, intelligence and administration officials say they cannot rely on vague assurances that the weapons and the nuclear materials are locked down. They worry about a stream of intelligence suggesting sophisticated efforts by Al Qaeda and others to place their sympathizers inside the nuclear infrastructure. (Pakistani officials say they extensively screen the thousands of nuclear workers and weed out anyone suspect. But even in the United States, such programs have failed in the past.)

So some officials argue for extending the American program to help secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, pressing Pakistan to develop joint plans to evacuate those weapons if they came under threat. It is doubtful that the Pakistanis, who fear the United States has secret plans to seize the arsenal, would ever agree.

The bluntest statement of concern to date came a week ago from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with James Rosen of Fox News. “If the worst, the unthinkable, were to happen, and this advancing Taliban, encouraged and supported by Al Qaeda and other extremists, were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan,” she said.

“We can’t even contemplate that,” she added. “We cannot let this go on any further, which is why we’re pushing so hard for the Pakistanis to come together around a strategy to take their country back.”

Source: The New York Times

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