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U.S. and Pakistan: different wars on terror

One seeks domestic security, the other stability for Afghans.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 2008



New Delhi

Tuesday at the United Nations President George Bush and his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, reaffirmed the alliance of two nations that, in some respects, are fighting two different wars under the single banner of the war on terror.

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The United States has recently stepped up missile attacks against targets in Pakistan as Washington becomes convinced that the Pakistani Army lacks either the will or ability to neutralize domestic terrorists. Yet Pakistanis counter that their Army is currently engaged in two offensives so large that they have displaced 300,000 people in areas bordering Afghanistan.

The different assessments of Pakistan's effort reflect the two nations' different goals in fighting terrorism. Pakistan wants peace within its borders. America prioritizes peace in Afghanistan, where security has deteriorated significantly this year. The two aims are not always congruous, and this disconnect is a fundamental part of rising tensions between the allies.

"Within the broader interest of fighting terrorism, their goals are divergent," says Moeed Yusuf, an analyst at Boston University.

America wants Pakistan to target terrorists that Pakistan has long tolerated. Since militancy emerged in Pakistan in the 1980s – then significantly funded by the US in order to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – Pakistan has sought to manage certain terrorist networks, not destroy them. Often, these terrorists have no grievance with Pakistan but use Pakistan as a base to attack Afghanistan.

This practice continued during the regime of former President and Army chief Pervez Musharraf, with short military campaigns to chasten militants, followed by cease-fires that let them rebuild. Yet he went largely unchallenged because the US was focused on Iraq, and Afghanistan was peaceful by comparison.

In President Zardari, the US appears to have a willing partner. On Saturday he told parliament, "Pakistan must not allow its soil to be used for terrorist attacks on other countries."

Zardari's control over the Army is questionable, though. The Army has always been Pakistan's strongest institution and loath to accept civilian oversight, meaning it could set its own agenda, regardless of what Zardari wants. Neither of the Army's current offensives – in the tribal agency of Bajaur or the Swat Valley – was initiated by civilian leaders.

The Swat Valley is a primary example of a region seen as crucial to Pakistan but only marginally relevant to the US. The fact that militants control Swat, a prime tourism spot only 90 minutes from Islamabad, is an affront and a clear danger to the populous Pakistani heartland.