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US: Increased Focus and Growing Pressure on Pakistan

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Dec 9 2009 (IPS) - While President Barack Obama’s announcement last week that he will “surge” 30,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan has received all of the attention here 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 Qaeda, it is also cracking down hard on associated groups – notably Lashkar-e-Taiba which carried out the deadly Mumbai attack one year ago.

The administration is also making increasingly explicit its fears about the fragility of the Pakistani state – the fears were fanned further this week as militants bombed supposedly well-secured targets in Rawalpindi, Lahore and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). The fate of President Asif Ali Zardari also became increasingly tenuous amid new corruption charges.

It was Obama himself who spelled out Washington’s worst-case scenario in his nationally televised speech on U.S. “AfPak” policy Dec. 1 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 Qaeda 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 sceptical 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.”

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 Qaeda, cannot be achieved without significantly greater co-operation from Pakistan than it has received in the past.

And if that co-operation 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 Qaeda 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 Afghan border, according to high- level sources both here and in Pakistan cited this week by the New York Times.

The officials – Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. 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 Qaeda hideouts, the last of which was carried out 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 polls, have become perhaps the most anti-American in the world. One recent international survey found that only six percent of Pakistanis hold a favourable view of the U.S.

In that respect, cross-border raids could be particularly damaging, according to retired Col. Pat Lang, who served as top “Middle East, South Asia and Terrorism” official at the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) until early in the George W. Bush administration.

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

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

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.

While the administration sees denying the Afghan Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan as critical to its counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan, Islamabad – and especially the 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 co-operation. In addition to the five-year, 7.5-billion-dollar 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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