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The U.S. worse than worst options in Pakistan

By Philippe Khan 


A bleak National Intelligence Estimate last week said that al-Qaeda has re-energized from its bases in Pakistan and is planning new attacks against the United States, dealing a major blow to the U.S. “war on terror” and leaving the Bush Administration stuck between tough choices on how to deal with President Pervez Musharraf’s government. 

According to an article on the Christian Science Monitor, terrorists would get stronger if the U.S. continued its support to the Pakistani government, which, according to the National Intelligence Estimate, has done little in six years to tackle terrorists who have established strong bases along the northern border with Afghanistan. 

Pressuring Musharraf, who is facing the toughest political fallout since he took office eight years ago, for swift action against terrorists could lead to the collapse of the closest U.S. ally in the region. 

From the White House’s view point, this would create a nightmare for the U.S.-led war on terror. "For the moment, we're stuck," says Bruce Riedel, a former national security adviser on counterterrorism and South Asian issues. "We have a policy that looks increasingly bankrupt, but I don't see the administration prepared as yet to move away from it or the military dictator" who stands at its core.

Although U.S. officials stress that all options are on the table to tackle the threat posed by terrorists in Pakistan, they admit that the United States is still depending on Musharraf and wouldn’t carry out any unilateral action without his consent. "There are no options off the table in actionable intelligence terrorism targets," White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend said last week. But she added: "We will continue to work with the Pakistani government to address the threat that comes from the tribal areas" and to "press them to take action to ensure that no part of Pakistan remains a safe haven for terrorists."

On the other hand, Pakistan reacts categorically to the U.S. talk of no options being ruled out. "Whatever counterterrorism action is to be taken inside Pakistan, it will be taken by our own security forces," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said Friday. "This has been and remains the basis of our cooperation with the U.S."

The U.S. strong support for the Pakistani government was evident in its admiration of Musharraf’s decision this month to seize the Red Mosque in Islamabad, an attack that resulted in the death of innocent civilians, and the president’s speech after the bloody raid. "We are going to battle extremism in every nook of Pakistan," Musharraf said on national television this month after ending a truce reached in September between the government and tribal areas. 

Some experts say one policy change Washington could immediately adopt is to link its billions of dollars in military and economic aid to Pakistan to clear benchmarks on the counterterrorism arena. "If we're putting in $2 billion a year, we could make $1 billion of it contingent upon developing an effective strategy and undertaking action against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremists," says Stephen Cohen, an expert in South Asian issues at the Brookings Institution.

Many White House officials agree with this principle. But critics of the administration’s Pakistan policy and of Bush’s strong support for a military dictator say the fact that Al Qaeda strengthened its bases under Musharraf's rule suggests the need for a policy shift. 

However, the options for U.S. policy in Pakistan after six years of unquestioned support for Musharraf range from "worse to worst," Mr. Cohen says, adding that no alternative can deliver a positive outcome in the short term. 

Militarily, the U.S. has two unfeasible options, says Mr. Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution. One would be to kill Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri. But the intelligence for such a move must be reliable and timely, Riedel says. 

The other option is for the U.S. army to strike Al Qaeda and Taliban camps in remote tribal areas – with or without Musharraf's consent. But the U.S. doesn’t have the forces for such an operation, especially after the "surge" of troops to Iraq, says Riedel, warning that this action could even cause more problems. 

Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs, agrees. "There can be no wait-and-see approach by the U.S. in terms of Pakistan, but neither can there be any unilateral action like a covert operation against these areas...That would be the kiss of death....and it would inflame the already strong anti-American feelings in the country." 

Inderfurth, now specializing in international relations at George Washington University, suggests that the U.S. takes advantage of an existing trilateral initiative among NATO countries, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to address the threat of terrorism from Pakistani territory. 

More importantly, Washington must pressure Musharraf into opening up Pakistan's political system. "Musharraf simply won't be able to mount an effective campaign against the extremists without broad civilian support," says Cohen, adding that the president should move to a system of power- sharing that encompasses Pakistan's political parties. 

Recent reports suggest former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto might join Musharraf in a coalition government focused on tackling terrorism. However, any move toward a power-sharing agreement may have been hampered by Friday's surprise ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court, which reinstated the chief justice Musharraf had suspended in March. 

The ruling could embolden the judiciary to challenge Musharraf's plans to secure a new presidential mandate from the outgoing parliament, experts say. 

Musharraf's commitment to holding elections is positive, but the quest to remain president and military chief is "bad news,” says Inderfurth. 

Other analysts believe that Musharraf may be part of the solution for Pakistan, but only if his powers are limited and the political power base is broadened. The problem for the U.S., Riedel says, will be finding a balance between encouraging democratic forces and abetting Musharraf's demise. "Having backed Musharraf to the hilt for six years, the slightest hint of a turn by the U.S. could set off his collapse," he says.


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