US message in drone strikes: If Pakistan doesn't take on Taliban, we will

The drone attacks Monday targeted militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region. The Pakistani military has promised its own offensive in the region, but no such operation has been launched.

In this photo taken on June 16, Pakistani villagers offer funeral prayers for people reportedly killed by drone attack, in Miranshah, capital of Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan along the Afghanistan border.

US drone attacks targeting militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region Monday sent a “we told you” message to Pakistan’s leadership: If you won’t take on the Taliban and other extremists crossing over to fight in Afghanistan, we will.

The Obama administration has stepped up drone strikes inside Pakistan over the past year – in particular in the North Waziristan region abutting Afghanistan in recent months. Pakistani officials have called publicly for the strikes to cease, insisting they alienate the general population.

At the same time, the Pakistani military has also promised – as recently as late May – that an offensive against North Waziristan’s havens was imminent. But no such offensive into North Waziristan, stronghold of groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, has been launched.

The strikes this week, which reportedly killed up to 21 militants, suggest the US has no intention of waiting.

The attacks occur as US-Pakistan relations, never easy, pass through a particularly tense period in the aftermath of the successful American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his compound not far from the Pakistani capital.

Pakistan has ordered a steep reduction in the number of US intelligence agents and special-operations forces in the country, while some in the US Congress advocate cuts in aid to Pakistan. Some officials and experts on both sides conclude it’s time for a divorce between the two countries.

But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that, even though conducting diplomatic relations with Pakistan can be a “very outraging experience,” there remain compelling national security and regional stability reasons for the US to offer Pakistan substantial defense and development assistance.

Speaking at the same hearing, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the committee, offered a succinct argument for why the US needs a strategic partnership with Pakistan.

“Despite the death of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups maintain a strong presence. And there is no question that the threat of these groups – combined with worries about state collapse, a Pakistani war with India, the safety of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, and Pakistan’s intersection with other states in the region – make it a strategically vital country, worth the cost of engagement,” Senator Lugar said.

The drone strikes do not contradict that argument, but they also convey a message that the US has certain expectations of the relationship – and that the US will not sit by if it determines its national security is threatened, as President Obama stated in his June 22 speech on Afghanistan policy.

“So long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us,” Mr. Obama said.

Secretary Clinton has said she told Pakistani officials when she visited the country after the bin Laden operation that the US has set benchmarks for Pakistan to meet. Those include taking a more aggressive stance against terrorist groups and senior Al Qaeda leaders and supporting Taliban reconciliation in Afghanistan.

It is not clear if Clinton, who was accompanied by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pressed upon the Pakistanis the importance of undertaking an offensive into North Waziristan. Some Pakistani military commanders announced publicly in the days following the Americans’ visit that such an operation would be forthcoming.

Some Pakistan experts caution against the US pressing for something that might end up backfiring. A Pakistani military push into North Waziristan could end up further destabilizing a precariously fragile Pakistani state, says Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“The US either doesn’t understand or chooses to disregard that having Pakistani forces enter that particular tribal area would have huge blowback,” Mr. Kugelman says. “It would very likely destabilize Pakistan more than it is now.”

Why? Militants in the region primarily focused on routing the US from Afghanistan might be flushed out of North Waziristan, Kugelman argues – and they might end up in neighboring territories where the militants are more focused on undermining the Pakistani state.

“If you have all these different groups banding together, you essentially have the conditions for the insurgency against the Pakistani government to increase,” Kugelman says. “The US has to consider that it has a much more vital interest in a stable Pakistan than any other interest in Afghanistan.”

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