Will Taliban attacks in Pakistan sway Obama's war decision?

The spate of attacks by the Taliban in Pakistan is likely to factor into President Obama's ongoing review of Afghanistan policy. The attacks highlight the regional nature of the Taliban insurgency.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The recent spate of terrorist bombings in Pakistan is likely to figure in President Obama's ongoing review of Afghanistan policy with top advisers next week.

Discussion of the violence in Pakistan will underscore the interconnected nature of the challenges the US faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, say South Asia analysts who have advised the administration on its policies.

A suicide bomber in Peshawar killed 12 people outside a police office Friday, the latest in a string of militant attacks that have taken more than 150 lives. On Sunday, militants even attacked the Pakistan Army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

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The bombings – seen by many observers as the work of the Pakistani Taliban hoping to forestall a rumored Pakistani military offensive into South Waziristan – aren't likely to be a game-changer in the president's review. But they could bolster established positions in the White House debate, analysts say.

Still, a bigger factor in the president's decision will be the outcome of Afghanistan's presidential election, which appeared headed to a runoff vote but which could still be settled by a power-sharing deal for a coalition government. Resolution of the election, expected as early as this weekend, has been one factor holding up Obama's decision on what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan.

"The most important initial need is to fix the Afghan elections," says Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington who advised Mr. Obama on Afghanistan last spring. "If there is a second round, it has to be a second round not marred by fraud and corruption like the first one."

The outcome of the elections is important, experts agree, because the success of the US and international effort in Afghanistan depends on the quality of the local "partner" – the Afghan government – and its ability to progressively take over the security operations.

Widespread perceptions of corruption in President Hamid Karzai's government thus bolster the arguments of those, like Vice-President Biden, who say the conditions don't exist for a counterinsurgency strategy to succeed.

But Pakistan is also a critical part of the administration's deliberations, Mr. Riedel says, with this week's targeting of the Pakistani military only augmenting nervousness over the future US direction in Afghanistan.

Riedel favors bolstering the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which would require a significant additional commitment of US troops. That course would reassure the Pakistani military and government, too, he says.

"More than ever, the Pakistani Army seems ready to take on these [violent extremist] elements," he says. But "how we act in Afghanistan is going to send a powerful message to the Pakistani" military and government, he adds.

"If they have the impression we are going to … run again [as in the 1990's], they are going to change course and make accommodations with the Taliban they face."

Others such as Mr. Biden say Pakistan should be the focus of a counterterrorist strategy that eschews higher troop levels in Afghanistan in favor of more surgical air strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan.

In their view, the bombings in Pakistan underline the importance of targeting terrorist bases rather than fighting over territory in Afghanistan. "The Al Qaeda threat is not to be equated with control of a particular piece of real estate," says Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA's counterterrorism center who is now at Georgetown University in Washington.

According to Mr. Pillar, who participated in a Brookings event on Afghanistan Friday, Afghanistan's place in determining what happens in Pakistan has been largely overstated. "The course of events in Pakistan," he says, "will depend mostly on what happens in Pakistan."

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