Despite the blustery talk from the White House about "all options being on the table" for dealing with Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the thrust of US plans is more about winning "hearts and minds" and less about unilateral military intervention.
On State Department and Pentagon drawing boards are plans to spend more than $1 billion over five years on a campaign in the remote tribal areas, where the latest National Intelligence Estimate says Al Qaeda has rebuilt its organization. The US effort is in part an economic development program and in part a military plan, similar to that in Iraq's Anbar Province, which is aimed at winning over local tribesmen in the battle with Al Qaeda. To work, the US effort would rely heavily on cooperation with the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
Despite support for the broad goal of denying Al Qaeda and Islamist extremism a sanctuary in these areas of Pakistan, questions remain in Congress and among experts over specifics – such as who would receive the sums of money, who would be accountable for them, and how to ensure they wouldn't fall into the wrong hands. As one example, Congress has held up approving the millions of dollars the administration seeks for training and equipping the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The idea would be to turn the corps against Al Qaeda, much as the US military in Iraq has forged alliances with Sunni tribes to take on Al Qaeda in Iraq. But Congress so far has balked at the Pakistan plan because of qualms over the tribesmen's allegiance and over funding fighters who are not part of the country's armed forces.
"The first order of business ... is to find a friend and then try to drive a wedge between these new friends and the groups you are really aiming at," says Daniel Markey, a Pakistan specialist and former State Department Policy Planning Staff member. "The question is how quickly you can bring them on board [for] a fight against a threat you face right now."
In many ways, the plans for Pakistan's tribal areas raise the same questions the US faces in other fronts in the war on terror: from how to win hearts and minds and what long-term impact military operations might have, to whom to choose as partners and how much the US can depend on the governments of key countries.
"The US has the potential and interest to help Pakistan stay on a course to stability and prosperity, but it also has the potential to dislodge it from that course," says Craig Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's really the central question of the war on terror: How do we protect ourselves while not making conditions over there worse?"
Congress seems ready to apply the hearts-and-minds approach to Pakistan's FATA, but not without reservations. "We're generally supportive of doing more in these regions, but it's a problem of implementation," says a congressional staffer with expertise on the topic but who was not authorized to speak publicly. "Whenever we've asked [the administration] for more information, there's a footnote at the end – implementation to be determined."
As part of a multibillion-dollar plan with the Pakistani government, the US would spend $150 million annually over the next five years on development in the tribal areas. The US would also provide more than $70 million a year toward the Pakistani government's $300 million plan to train the 85,000-strong Frontier Corps and to equip them with vehicles, communication devices, and other modern features. The corps has existed since British colonial times and is made up largely of local Pashtun tribesmen, which means they know the area and the people – an obvious plus.
Beyond simply providing the corps with better equipment, the force needs training to develop modern capabilities of mobility and communication, says Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs.
Congress, however, has outlawed funding paramilitary organizations except where a specific exception is granted. In addition, numerous US military and Pakistani sources charge that elements of the Frontier Corps assist and shelter Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. Such reports raise the broader question of who would be America's partners as it seeks to transform the FATA from a hostile and highly insular region.
"This is an area where outsiders don't travel freely, but where civil society has very little presence," says Mr. Cohen. Noting that Mr. Boucher told Congress recently, "We can do business there," Cohen adds, "I hope so, but it's a bigger challenge than that comment would indicate."
The reality is that the US will have "little capacity for monitoring its money [and for] seeing if things are happening the way they are supposed to," says Mr. Markey, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
And the potential for "bad spending" is high when the money would go to support a program being implemented not by the US, but by the host government, experts say. "In practice, this kind of program has meant a great deal of money tending to go into the pockets of people who don't deliver what we thought or who we never wanted to get it," says Frederic Grare, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The dilemma posed by transformation programs like the one the US is pursuing in Pakistan's tribal areas is that any positive results will come over the long term, while the threat they seek to address is "there and getting worse," Markey says.
One result is the current batch of warnings from the administration that the US is not ruling out military action in the area, particularly if the US has "actionable intelligence" for hitting Al Qaeda's leadership.
"The fact is that you need to move now against Al Qaeda," Mr. Grare says. "So while spending $750 million on development in these areas may be a good thing, it is not counterterrorism."
The real issue, he adds, is "convergence" between the US and Pakistani governments on addressing the actual terrorist threat.
Keeping up the pressure with veiled threats is fine, but "doing it publicly can make our task more difficult if it discourages cooperation," Markey says. "We should also remember that the kind of strikes people are talking about right now might not produce the intended results," he adds, "but would almost certainly inflame the region against us and encourage more recruits for the extremists."