US officials ratchet up pressure on Pakistan over Taliban militants

On eve of White House summit, Pakistani officials push back against the impression that they're responding to Washington pressure.

The Obama administration appears to have pushed some hot buttons with the government of Pakistan – getting some quick action against the rising threat from the country's extremist forces, but also irritating a leadership anxious to show it is not acting under pressure from anyone.

That sequence follows a familiar pattern in US-Pakistan relations, experts in the region say: first comes some American action, usually rhetorical, followed by just enough Pakistani action to satisfy Washington.

The difference this time is that Pakistani action follows a shift in US focus: from Pakistan as it affects the war next door in Afghanistan to Pakistan itself and its stability amid an intensifying confrontation with Taliban militants.

"We're seeing this evolution where we are coming to recognize that between these two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pakistan is ultimately more critical to our national security," says Marvin Weinbaum, a former South Asia specialist with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. "There's a dawning realization that we have a partnership in serious difficulty and a country under serious threat."

Less than a week after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton elevated the rhetoric by telling Congress that the government was "abdicating" before Taliban forces taking control of new pockets of the country, Pakistan has stepped up its military offensive against the Taliban in areas near the border with Afghanistan.

On Sunday, the government sent troops and helicopter gunships to battle Taliban militants in the Swat Valley near the capital, Islamabad.

Pakistani officials insist the government is acting in its own interest and not at the behest of any foreign government.

But some comments belie a sensitivity to intensifying American pressures to take on the advancing Taliban.

"Please do not panic," Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Monday in response to Secretary Clinton's testimony before a House committee. "We will not surrender, we will not capitulate, and we will not abdicate."

Heightened US concern about Pakistan has surfaced not only in Clinton's comments to Congress but also in a White House meeting President Obama held last Thursday with her and with his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

That meeting and subsequent bilateral contacts are seen to be setting the tone for a three-way White House summit Obama will hold next week with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

State Department officials say US alarm at a Taliban advance to within 60 miles of the capital has been communicated forcefully to the Pakistani government, both in Washington and in Islamabad, although they leave any public comment on US concerns to the department spokesman.

But officials add that the most recent expressions of concern follow earlier questions over an accord under which the government ceded control of the Swat Valley to the Taliban and accepted that strict sharia law be applied there.

"We're very concerned about what's going on in Pakistan, and we call on the government and the military to take strong and aggressive and decisive action to deal with the extremists that threaten the country and, quite frankly, the region," says State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

The stepped-up focus on Pakistan reflects how the Obama administration's initial placement of Afghanistan at the top of its foreign policy agenda with a dual Afghanistan-Pakistan approach has shifted to growing preoccupation with Pakistan itself. But it also comes as the administration is seeking a half-billion dollars in new aid to Pakistan to launch a revised assistance program that puts new emphasis on civilian and development initiatives.

The increased assistance risked falling under a cloud of doubt in Congress if the Taliban advances continued unopposed by the government, some administration officials say.

At the same time, administration officials are mindful of Pakistani sensitivities and thus are being careful not to present the toughened rhetoric as the impetus for Pakistan's recent action against militants – even as they add that much more action will be necessary.

"Whether it was [Secretary Clinton] who influenced them or they just decided within their own national security interest to do so, I can't tell you," said Mr. Wood in comments to reporters Monday. "The important thing is that they need to act further because these extremists are a threat to Pakistan as well as to the region."

The problem with harsher comments like Clinton's "abdicating" assertion, or tough talk from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is that they risk backfiring by convincing a highly nationalistic population that their government is simply acting on America's behalf, regional experts say.

Pakistan was awash in commentary that the new offensive against the Taliban followed on the heels of both Clinton's comments and of a visit by Admiral Mullen.

"All this very public commentary only makes things more difficult because it reinforces the idea [among Pakistanis] that the government takes its orders from Washington," says Mr. Weinbaum, now at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Pakistan's battle with Islamic extremists and the prospects for instability and an eventual fall of the government have long taken on an air of particular urgency because Pakistan is a nuclear power. The Pakistani government has used those concerns in the past as it sought international assistance to keep the country afloat, and that approach was repeated this week by President Zardari.

Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is in "safe hands," Mr. Zardari said in comments to foreign journalists Monday – before suggesting that a frightening change in whose hands control the Pakistani bomb could occur without international support for his economically teetering country.

"If Pakistan fails, if democracy fails, if the world doesn't help democracy," he said, "then any eventuality is a possibility."

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