The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released this week paints a bleak picture of Al Qaeda's renewed strength and determination to attack America. And a major part of the blame, US officials charge, lies with someone President Bush has described as a critical ally in the war on terror: Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.
Since 9/11, Washington has looked to President Musharraf to uproot Islamic extremism in South Asia. Nearly six years later, however, Pakistan is still a nuclear-armed crucible of jihadi culture, exporting terrorists and destabilizing its neighbors.
For too long, Washington has coddled the Pakistani general, turned a blind eye to his crushing of democracy, and read too much into his pro-West rhetoric. The US must change course. And there are signs it's about to. "There's no doubt that more aggressive steps need to be taken," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
After almost a decade under Mush-arraf's rule, Pakistan hasn't changed much. He has initiated reforms and revamped the economy. But where he was expected to do most, fighting Islamic extremism, Pakistan's record is most disappointing.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban use Pakistani soil as a haven and training ground. Recent deals between the government and Pashtun tribes have in effect ceded the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. A big reason Al Qaeda's influence is growing, according to the NIE, is the operational capability it enjoys in Pakistan.
Musharraf speaks of "enlightened moderation," but he has done more to pulverize secular democratic parties than contain Islamist ones. It was his electoral rules that helped Islamist parties win their largest parliamentary representation ever in 2002, marginalizing the larger secular parties that threatened him.
Islamabad is happy to nab foreign jihadis when pressured by the West or ban extremist groups that get out of hand, but it has been reluctant to uproot the infrastructure of extremism.
Extremist groups proliferate and operate in the open. Musharraf finds them useful in convincing Washington and Pakistan's middle classes that the military is all that protects the country from a Taliban-like Islamic state.
It is not a coincidence that the government's recent battle against extremists associated with the Red Mosque came on the heels of nationwide antigovernment protests following Musharraf's summary dismissal of the country's chief justice. Musharraf hopes that the crisis will persuade secular-minded Pakistanis to abandon the barricades and align behind him.
The government was fully aware of what went on in the Red Mosque, just a mile from the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence headquarters. Yet Musharraf chose to ignore the extremists between January and June, even as they sought to impose Islamic law on the capital city. It was not until he sensed public anger at his dithering, and confronted a diplomatic crisis when the extremists abducted Chinese nationals, that he stormed the mosque.
Frustrated with developments in Pakistan, many in Washington look to elections and a civilian government for solutions. Democracy should be wel-comed, but it will change little. The last time there was a transfer of power to a civilian government, in 1988, the military still chose the foreign minister and informed the prime minister that it would control the nuclear program, intelligence, security, and policies toward Afghanistan and India. This time, too, the military will continue to call the shots – especially when it comes to Afghanistan.
Without Pakistani cooperation, NATO and the US will have to substantially increase their commitments to contain the Taliban. That cooperation will not be forthcoming until the US addresses Pakistani interests. Afghanistan has always been a strategic concern for Islamabad. Pashtuns make up 40 percent of Afghanistan, but there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan, where they constitute 15 percent of the population. Afghanistan has never recognized the border (Durand line) between the two countries, and for most of Pakistan's existence, Pashtuns in control of an independent Afghan state have been allied with India and laid irredentist claims to Pakistan's Pashtun Northwest Province.
It was only when Pakistani-backed Afghan mujahideen or the Taliban ruled Kabul that Pakistan felt secure in its relations with Afghanistan. Pakistani generals counted on the "strategic depth" that their neighbor to the northwest would provide in a war against India.
These days, they see Afghanistan as an adversary. They are irked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's strong ties to Delhi and the mushrooming of Indian consulates across Afghanistan. The territory that they "owned" until 9/11, thanks to the Taliban, is now at best neutral and at worst the playground of their arch rival, India. Pakistan does not view Afghanistan through the prism of the war on terror, but in the context of its own vulnerabilities in the competition for power and influence with India. That's why Islamabad has everything to gain by playing the Taliban card, giving its fighters and their Al Qaeda allies a lair in Pakistan's border region, to keep Kabul weak and southern Afghanistan free of Indian influence.
In dealing with Pakistan, Washington has preferred to see the logic of the war on terror as self-evident, not recognizing that even close allies will not cooperate if it does not serve their interests. It is only by addressing Pakistan's interests that Washington can secure greater cooperation from Islamabad.
Washington cannot give Pakistan the sphere of influence in southern Afghanistan that it desires to make sure it will not be encircled by India. However, Washington can give Pakistan greater interest in Afghanistan's stability than it has now by encouraging Kabul to include Pakistan's allies and clients in government; and more important, to finally recognize its international border with Pakistan.
• Vali Nasr is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future."