Pak gets nervy as US gaze shifts to Afghanistan

Pak gets nervy as US gaze shifts to Afghanistan


The Obama administration is stepping up pressure on Pakistan to expand and reorient its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, warning that failing to do so would undercut the new strategy and troop increase for Afghanistan that President Barack Obama is preparing to approve, American officials say.
While Afghanistan has dominated the public discussion of Obama’s forthcoming strategy, which officials say could be announced next week, Pakistan is returning to centre stage in internal administration planning.

As the president travelled to Asia, his national security adviser, Gen James L Jones, was sent to Islamabad. His message, officials said, was that the new American strategy would work only if Pakistan broadened its fight beyond the militants attacking its cities and security forces and goes after the groups that use safe havens in Pakistan for plotting and carrying out attacks against American troops in Afghanistan.

For their part, Pakistani officials have told the Americans that they harbour two deep fears about Obama’s new strategy: that the US will add too many troops on the Afghan side of the border, and that the American effort will end too soon. Their first concern, described by officials on both sides of the recent discussions, is that if Obama commits an additional 30,000 or more troops, it will inevitably push more Taliban fighters across the border into Pakistani territory and complicate the Pakistani army’s offensive in South Waziristan.

Every time Obama declares that the US will not have an ‘open-ended’ military commitment in Afghanistan, he fuels a second concern of the powerful Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, which believes the US commitment is fleeting. It is a concern that some of them say justifies Pakistan’s continuing ties to the very militants who are fighting American troops in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to fuel this concern in her comments on the ABC programme saying: “We’re not interested in staying in Afghanistan. We have no long-term stake there. We want that to be made very clear.”

White House officials have said comparatively little about the Pakistan side of the administration’s evolving war strategy, in part because they have so few options. They cannot place forces inside Pakistan, and they cannot talk publicly about the CIA's Predator drone strikes in the country, though they are so much of an open secret that Clinton was asked about them repeatedly in meetings she held late last month with Pakistani students and citizens. (She evaded the questions, refusing to acknowledge the programme’s existence.)

Jones offered new incentives to the Pakistanis for their cooperation, said a senior administration official who declined to describe them or be identified by name because of continuing discussions between the two countries. American officials have said in the past they were willing to expand intelligence sharing as well as widen the range of the armed drone missions against leaders of al-Qaeda and other militant groups inside Pakistan.

Minimal commitment of troops
During Obama’s series of Situation Room briefings on his alternatives, those advocating a minimal commitment of new troops in Afghanistan have argued that the United States needs only enough forces to keep al-Qaeda ‘bottled up’ in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan. That is the position taken by Vice President Joseph R Biden Jr.; the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel; and most recently, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W Eikenberry, administration officials say.

“You could argue that even under the status quo, we don’t see al-Qaeda coming into Afghanistan,” said one official sympathetic to this view. “And so an additional commitment of forces isn’t going to apply more pressure on our main target.”
Those arguing for a more forceful presence -- including Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert M Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm Mike Mullen -- have contended that while Afghanistan is not now a haven for al-Qaeda, it could easily become one if the Taliban make further inroads.

American officials have praised Pakistan’s leaders for finally launching comprehensive military attacks against Taliban forces that have conducted suicide bombings in the capital, on the military headquarters and last week against a key office of the main Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
But the Americans are now trying, as the Bush administration did with little success, to persuade Pakistan to do more, not just against the Qaeda leadership holed up in the country’s unruly tribal areas, but also against the Afghan Taliban leadership in the southern Pakistani city of Quetta and the Haqqani militant network in the tribal areas.

Rep Jane Harman, a California Democrat, who heads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence and who visited Pakistan last week, summed up the administration’s frustrations and her own after meetings with senior Pakistani officials: “They are focused on who they think are threats to them. Period.”
Outpost closures

A recurring theme in Clinton’s visit to Pakistan was the perception that the US and NATO forces are drawing down troops along the Afghan border with Pakistan. This, Pakistani officials said, is allowing Afghan militants to pour across the border into South Waziristan, where they become Pakistan’s problem.
Clinton argued that NATO had actually increased troop levels along that border, but had decided to consolidate about half a dozen remote outposts into fewer, larger installations, because they were easier to defend. According to American military officials, the Pakistani military got no warning of the change, so it looked as if the troops were simply being withdrawn.

So great was the Pakistani concern over the outpost closures that Gen Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, made a special point during an unannounced trip to Islamabad after Clinton's visit to reassure Pakistani officials of American resolve.
“We’re stuck between not wanting to suggest we’re going to be there forever, but on the other hand, if we don’t show some kind of commitment, everyone continues to play the same game,” a senior administration official said Sunday. “That's the challenge.”

If Pakistanis voice concerns about a lack of American commitment, they express equal concern that sending tens of thousands of additional American troops to Afghanistan could force Taliban militants across the border into Pakistan. “Whatever we do – put in more troops or put in fewer troops – they’ll freak out,” said an American intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardising his relations with Pakistani officials. “Whatever we do, there’ll be a lot of drama.”

But the intelligence officer acknowledged that the long-term security picture and American commitment in Afghanistan are still unclear. “Look, if I were in Pakistan, I’d be hedging my bets, too,” the officer said. “We need to be much more convincing that we have a better game plan.”
The New York Times

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