Fine print of Obama's Afghanistan speech: it's about Pakistan

In his speech, Obama was careful to include Pakistan's borderlands with Afghanistan in his most dire warnings. His new strategy for Afghanistan also means a ratcheting up of resources for – and pressures on – Pakistan.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A soldier stands guard at the site of a suicide bombing outside Pakistan's naval headquarters in Islamabad Wednesday.
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President Obama's speech Tuesday night may have focused on his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but infusing almost every paragraph was the administration's even deeper concern about Pakistan.

Mr. Obama spoke of the two countries' long and rugged border region as the "epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda" that continues to threaten the US. He went further, saying that the dangers in allowing the region to "slide backwards" into becoming a haven for extremists "are even greater with a nuclear-armed Pakistan."

But left largely unsaid was the extent to which the new strategy for Afghanistan also means a ratcheting up of resources for – and pressures on – Pakistan.

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"From the beginning, Pakistan has always had primacy in this president's thinking about things," says Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert, formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency, who co-chaired Obama's initial interagency review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy last winter.

Administration officials including Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, have traveled to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad recently to lay out US plans for stepped-up intelligence operations and military assistance.

CIA Director Leon Panetta has also pressed the Pakistanis for greater cooperation. The US would like to broaden the scope of the unmanned drone attacks that have targeted Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders who direct their operations from hide-outs along the Afghan border.

But so far, Pakistan's civilian and military leaders have been reluctant to OK the increased US intelligence presence and operations, Pakistani sources say.

As difficult as dealing with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai may be, working with the Pakistani government "is even more complicated," says Mr. Riedel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.

The civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari is teetering and could fall soon, he says, while the military – which is "always the real power base" – is "completely cynical about the United States."

And public opinion is no better. A surge of anti-Americanism greeted US congressional approval earlier this fall of a new $7.5 billion civilian aid program for Pakistan.

Hardly anyone disputes Obama's contention that the fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are largely intertwined. What worries some US policymakers is a scenario in which a larger US military presence in Afghanistan means more fighting and upheaval – and thus a surge of refugees and fighters across the border into Pakistan.

In a statement critical of Obama's plans for more troops in Afghanistan, Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin said the plan poses particular risks for Pakistan. "Sending more troops could further destabilize Afghanistan and, more importantly, Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state where al Qaeda is headquartered," he said.

Obama cited as a "hopeful sign" in his speech that the Pakistani military is beginning to pursue Taliban extremists who have found refuge in border provinces. He pointed to an ongoing offensive in South Waziristan, as well as to an earlier operation in the Swat Valley north of Islamabad.

While those may be positive steps, Pakistan will have to go further and join in the intelligence war against the Afghan Taliban, some say. George Friedman, an analyst with Stratfor Global Intelligence, says the US needs to penetrate the Taliban to "know what the enemy knows and intends." The only way to do that, he says, is through the Pakistani intelligence services.

Providing the Pakistani military with the air power it needs to successfully root out the extremist havens would be a key first step toward putting the military on the US side, says Riedel of Brookings.

"We should be flooding them with air support," he says. "That will convince the Pakistani generals [more than] all the nasty notes Jones and Panetta can deliver in four years."

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