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America's Pakistan dilemma

The US struggles to increase pressure on terrorists and avert Musharraf's downfall.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 2007


In debating what to do about Pakistan – after a grim National Intelligence Estimate last week found Al Qaeda to be re-energized from its bases there and planning new attacks against the US – the Bush administration is caught between a familiar rock and a hard place.

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Continue to defer to the regime of President Pervez Musharraf, which has done little in six years to root out the havens Islamist extremists have established along the northern border with Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden's organization is likely to continue strengthening and building the next generation of leadership.

But press President Musharraf too hard for swift action against the Islamist strongholds – especially as he faces the toughest political pressures of his eight-year rule – and the key American ally could fall. From the White House's perspective, that would create a nightmare for the US-led war on terror.

"For the moment, we're stuck," says Bruce Riedel, a former national security adviser on counterterrorism and South Asian issues. "We have a policy that looks increasingly bankrupt, but I don't see the administration prepared as yet to move away from it or the military dictator" who stands at its core.

US officials insist that no actions have been ruled out to address the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Pakistan. They acknowledge, however, that the US is still banking on cooperation from Musharraf, and is not about to undertake any unilateral action without the general's consent.

"There are no options off the table in actionable intelligence terrorism targets," White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend said last week. But she added, "We will continue to work with the Pakistani government to address the threat that comes from the tribal areas" and to "press them to take action to ensure that no part of Pakistan remains a safe haven for terrorists."

Pakistan reacted categorically to US talk of no options being ruled out. "Whatever counterterrorism action is to be taken inside Pakistan, it will be taken by our own security forces," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said Friday. "This has been and remains the basis of our cooperation with the US."

Senior officials' visits

Senior administration officials – including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert Gates – have recently visited Pakistan to urge that more be done to deny Al Qaeda, a resurgent Taliban, and other extremist groups a haven in Pakistan's tribal areas. White House officials were heartened by Musharraf's decision this month to seize an extremist mosque in Islamabad – and by his speech after the violent raid.

"We are going to battle extremism in every nook of Pakistan and we are going to rid … all of Pakistan of extremism," Musharraf said on national television this month after ending a truce reached in September between the government and the tribal areas. He also said that by year's end security forces along the northern border with Afghanistan will be equipped with weapons, including tanks, to fortify the battle with extremists in the region.

The US provides Musharraf with billions of dollars in military and economic assistance. In June, the State Department announced a five-year, $750 million counterterrorism initiative for the tribal areas, consisting of education, health, and sanitation projects – all aimed at winning over a largely hostile populace.

One policy change the US could adopt immediately, some experts say, is to condition its largesse on clear action and verifiable progress in the counterterrorism arena – in a sense, benchmarks.

"If we're putting in $2 billion a year, we could make $1 billion of it contingent upon developing an effective strategy and undertaking action against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremists," says Stephen Cohen, an expert in South Asian issues at the Brookings Institution.

Publicly, the administration subscribes to this principle. But critics of the Bush administration's Pakistan policy – and of the president's warm embrace of a military dictator – say the fact that Al Qaeda has enjoyed a certain renaissance under Musharraf's rule suggests the need for a change in policy.