Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama's 'Surge' in Afghanistan Puts New Pressure on Pakistan to Root Out Taliban


Washington's Mounting Pressure on Islamabad Government to Defeat Taliban Insurgents While At the Same Time Sending In 30,000 More U.S. Troops to Afghanistan Reveals a Growing Anxiety Over Pakistan's Stability -- and Control Over Its Nuclear Weapons

Pakistani military soldiers: Pakistan arms villagers to fight Taliban

Pakistani soldiers guard a street in the volatile Swat Valley. With violent attacks by Taliban insurgents mounting -- including suicide bomb attacks in the cities of Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar, s well as in the mountainous Northwest Frontier province that borders Afghanistan -- the Unites States is becoming increasingly concerned, despite its public statements to the contrary, about the nuclear-armed country's stability. (Photo: Reuters)


(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Thursday, December 10, 2009)

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SPECIAL REPORT
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By JIM LOBE
Inter-Press Service


While President Obama’s announcement last week that he will "surge" 30,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan has received all of the major media attention over the past week, Pakistan appears to be looming larger than ever in Washington’s strategic calculations and concerns.

Not only is Washington increasing pressure on Islamabad to deny safe haven to the Pakistani-backed leadership of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida, it is also cracking down hard on al-Qaida's associated groups -- most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the deadly attack in India's commercial capital, Mumbai, a year ago.

The Obama administration is also making increasingly explicit its fears about the fragility of the Pakistani state -- those fears were fanned further this week as militants bombed supposedly well-secured targets in Rawalpindi, Lahore and in the volatile Northwest Frontier Province.

In addition, the political fate of Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari has became increasingly tenuous amid new corruption charges.

WASHINGTON'S WORST NIGHTMARE: PAKISTAN'S NUKES FALLING INTO MILITANTS' HANDS

It was Obama himself who spelled out Washington’s worst-case scenario in his nationally televised speech on U.S. "Af-Pak" policy ten days in what officials insisted was not mere rhetorical hyperbole.

In justifying his planned military escalation in Afghanistan, he declared that "the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al-Qaida and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them."

That threat has been critical in persuading skeptical U.S. lawmakers to temper their criticism of the administration’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan.

"In our public sessions, the talk is all about Afghanistan," noted one Congressional source just before Obama’s speech. "But, once they close the doors [to go into executive session], it’s all about Pakistan and the nightmare scenarios that could develop there."

OBAMA WALKING A TIGHTROPE ON WHAT TO DO ABOUT MILITANTS IN PAKISTAN

While Obama went into considerable detail about U.S. plans for Afghanistan, including a pledge to begin drawing down what will be more than 100,000 U.S. troops in the country in July 2011, he stuck to generalities when it came to Pakistan -- in part because much of Washington is currently doing and hopes to do in the future is covert.

Most experts here believe that the administration’s hopes of reversing the Taliban’s gains in Afghanistan over the last several years, let alone achieving its ultimate goal of "defeat[ing]" al-Qaida, cannot be achieved without significantly greater cooperation from Pakistan than it has received in the past.

And if Islamabad's cooperation is not forthcoming, according to recent published reports, Washington may very well take additional unilateral measures to deal with the persistent threats that it sees across the border.

In particular, top U.S. officials recently warned Islamabad that if it fails to act more aggressively against the leaders of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida based in Pakistan, Washington will expand the range of its Predator drone attacks -- more than 50 of which have been carried out so far this year -- beyond the tribal regions that straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, according to high-level sources both in the U.S. and in Pakistan cited November 29 by The New York Times.

NEW CROSS-BORDER RAIDS BY U.S. TROOPS INTO PAKISTAN COULD IGNITE HUGE ANTI-AMERICAN BACKLASH

The officials -- Obama’s national security adviser, retired General James Jones, and his counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan -- also reportedly warned that Washington was prepared to resume raids by U.S. Special Forces against suspected Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida hideouts, the last of which was carried out under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, in September 2008, provoking a storm of protest throughout Pakistan.

As U.S. officials themselves concede, the costs of carrying out such threats could be very high in a country of 180 million people who, according to a series of recent opinion polls, have become perhaps the most anti-American in the world. One recent international survey found that only six percent of Pakistanis hold a favorable view of the U.S.

In that respect, cross-border raids could be particularly damaging, according to retired Colonel Pat Lang, who served as a top Middle East, South Asia and terrorism official at the Defense Intelligence Agency until early in the Bush administration.

"Pakistanis don’t want [American forces] in their country, and their mere presence will drive many people towards the zealots," he warned Monday in a blog discussion featured on the National Journal’s Web site.

Indeed, some experts believe that the escalation in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will by itself further radicalize Pakistanis, especially if the anticipated increase in violence results in a major exodus of Afghans fleeing across the border.

DESPITE PROGRESS, U.S. NOT SATISFIED WITH ISLAMABAD'S FIGHT AGAINST TALIBAN

Washington has been heartened by the Pakistani army’s campaigns since last spring against the country’s own Taliban in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan, and by increased intelligence co-operation that has resulted in a significantly higher level of successful drone attacks -- more than 50 so far this year -- including one that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the founder of Pakistan’s Taliban, last August.

Despite such enhanced co-operation -- which also includes limited covert missions by the Central Intelligence Agency and the deployment of several dozen Special Forces counter-insurgency trainers to work with the army - Washington believes that Pakistan is not doing nearly enough, especially against the Afghan Taliban leadership which it believes is based in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan.

Indeed, U.S. officials are currently negotiating with their Pakistani counterparts over permission to extend their Predator attacks to Baluchistan.

PAKISTAN'S TRUMP CARD: INDIA

While the administration sees denying the Afghan Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan as critical to its counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan, Islamabad -- and especially the Pakistani army -- has long used the group as a weapon against what it sees as an increasingly powerful India, its historic enemy, which has greatly expanded its influence in Kabul since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001.

Obama’s announcement that he intends to begin reducing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in mid-2011 makes it less likely, according to most analysts here, that Islamabad will go along with Washington’s demands to move against the group, lest it lose a trump in the scramble to fill any vacuum left by departing U.S. troops.

Thus, the administration is assuring Islamabad that it is committed to remain long enough to ensure that no such vacuum develops.

Washington is also offering carrots to induce Islamabad’s cooperation. In addition to the five-year, $7.5 billion economic and development aid package approved by Congress earlier this fall, legislation providing generous trade preferences remains on the table.

In addition, the administration has promised to press India toward serious talks on Kashmir, to increase intelligence sharing, including enhanced consultation on drone strikes, and military aid, including consideration of a long-standing request by Islamabad for additional F-16 fighter jets - a request that, if granted, would almost certainly irritate India.

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Volume IV, Number 93
Special Report Copyright 2009, Inter-Press Service.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All Rights Reserved.







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