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.
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.
Still, the options for US policy in Pakistan after six years of unquestioned support for Musharraf range from "worse to worst," Mr. Cohen says. He says no alternative will be able to deliver a positive result – a stable, democratic Pakistan where the Islamist extremist fringes have withered away – in the short term.
Two military options, both unlikely
Militarily, the US has two options, says Mr. Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution. One would be to seize or kill Mr. bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, in what military officials call a "snatch and grab" operation. But Riedel says the intelligence for such a move must be reliable and timely. "The shelf life of that kind of intelligence is generally measured in hours, not days or weeks," he adds.
A second option, one Riedel says is getting an increased airing in Washington, is for the US military to take out Al Qaeda and Taliban camps in remote tribal areas – with or without Musharraf's accord. But the US doesn't have the forces for such an operation, especially after the "surge" of troops to Iraq, says Riedel. He and other experts say such an action would probably cause more problems than it solves.
"There can be no wait-and-see approach by the US in terms of Pakistan, but neither can there be any unilateral action like a covert operation against these areas," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs. "That would be the kiss of death for any broad move against the extremists, and it would inflame the already strong anti-American feelings in the country."
The US should take advantage of an existing trilateral initiative among NATO countries, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to address the threat of terrorism from Pakistani territory, says Mr. Inderfurth, now specializing in international relations at George Washington University.
More broadly, however, the US must work – fast – to pressure Musharraf into opening up Pakistan's political system and tapping into its shallow but existing democratic roots, experts say. "Musharraf simply won't be able to mount an effective campaign against the extremists without broad civilian support," says Cohen.
And for that, he adds, the military leader will have to move to a system of power- sharing that encompasses Pakistan's political parties.
Recent speculation suggested former prime minister Benazir Bhutto might join Musharraf in a coalition government focused on tackling extremism. But any moves toward a power-sharing deal may have been halted by Friday's surprise ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court, which reinstated the chief justice Musharraf had suspended in March.
The ruling, which Musharraf announced he would respect, could embolden the judiciary to challenge Musharraf's plans to secure a new presidential mandate from the outgoing parliament.
Inderfurth says Musharraf's commitment to holding elections is positive, but the quest to remain president and military chief is "bad news." He says, however, that the US must keep in mind that the 60-year-old nation "is in the fight of its life" against Islamist extremism.
Musharraf and the country's moderate political forces must find a way to come together, he says, "because if they don't the problems identified in the National Intelligence Estimate will pale in comparison to what could follow." The international community "should very much want Musharraf to prevail in this," he adds.
Others say Musharraf may be part of the preferred avenue for Pakistan, but only if that includes a clipping of the general's power and a broadening of the political power base. The problem for the US, Riedel says, will be finding a balance between encouraging democratic forces and abetting Musharraf's demise.
"Having backed Musharraf to the hilt for six years, the slightest hint of a turn by the US could set off his collapse," Riedel says.