A new quest for U.S. in Pakistan

Posted in Pakistan , United States | 20-Aug-08 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf addressed the nation on Monday, as seen in this photo released by Pakistan's Press Information Department.

ISLAMABAD: Despite the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani government will almost certainly remain an American ally in the campaign against terrorism. The question for Washington will be how firmly it can fix the attention of the leaders of the governing coalition on the raging Taliban insurgency.

Musharraf, under pressure over impending impeachment charges, stepped down Monday after almost nine years in power. The immediate reaction in Pakistan's corridors of power and streets was one of optimism and opportunity.

Neither of the two coalition leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, has shown much interest in the nexus of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which have found sanctuary and renewed strength in Pakistan's tribal areas. From there, they threaten U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and have been destabilizing Pakistan itself.

The threats from the Islamic extremists present different dangers to the United States and Pakistan.

At the end of the Bush administration and the start of a new era in Washington, the major concerns about Pakistan, a poor, nuclear-armed country with 165 million people, are twofold.

First, the United States wants to prevent Al Qaeda preparing another attack on the United States from the safety and seclusion of the lawless tribal region. Second, the U.S. military is demanding that Pakistan stop Taliban fighters from crossing the border into Afghanistan and attacking U.S. and NATO forces.

For Pakistan, the Taliban threat is a domestic one. In the past month, for example, more than 130 girls' schools have been burned in the region of Swat alone, and in the past 10 days there have been daily casualties in fighting in the tribal areas between insurgents and the military. Many of the 60 suicide bomb attacks last year, and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December, have been attributed to the Pakistani Taliban.

Even with a civilian government in control of Parliament, Washington will continue to concentrate its anti-terror efforts on General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of army staff, who succeeded Musharraf as military chief last November, said Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao. Sherpao is a former interior minister whose parliamentary district borders the tribal region.

The coalition that emerged triumphant on the ashes of Musharraf's rule on Monday is a fragile one that could fall apart in the coming months. So just as the Bush administration saw Musharraf when he was army chief as "an indispensable ally," it almost surely sees Kayani in the same way, albeit with a civilian component along side him, Sherpao said. "They will be asking the coalition to give General Kayani support," Sherpao said of Washington.

But, Sherpao said the coalition government had a poor comprehension of the conflict in the tribal zone, and little cohesion.

Zardari, the widower of Bhutto and now head of the Pakistan People's Party, and Nawaz, a two-time prime minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, are very different politicians.

Zardari, a controversial businessman with little experience in government, is a virtual unknown in Washington. Prime Minster Yousaf Razi Gilani, whom Zardari handpicked, made a poor impression during his first visit to the White House last month.

Sharif left a legacy as a leader who was prepared to introduce Sharia laws in the late 1990s, a threat that left doubts in Washington about his commitment to containing extremism. That reputation should be put aside, said General Jehangir Karamat, a former army chief of staff who served as ambassador to Washington in the early Musharraf era.

"I don't think missteps of the past should haunt him," Karamat said of Sharif. "I think he understands the gravity of the situation. He realizes how the insurgency can destabilize. He needs to be listened to. He is there now, you can't walk around him."

Washington's chief complaint about Pakistan in recent months has centered on what it contends is substantial support for the Taliban by the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

The CIA has depended heavily on the ISI for information about militants in Pakistan, and had kept quiet about its longstanding concerns that the spy service had divided loyalties. It was felt, Washington officials said, that the ISI was too important to alienate.

But those qualms have vanished in the last few months as Taliban attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have mounted.

On a visit to Islamabad last month. Stephen Kappes, deputy director of the CIA, gave Gilani, the prime minister, evidence of the ISI's involvement with Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Taliban operator with close links to Al Qaeda.

Kappes also laid down evidence of ISI connections to the suicide bombing attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul on July 7, which killed nearly 60 people.

The briefing was intended to alert the Pakistanis that Washington was aware of, and deeply concerned by, the ties between the ISI and the Taliban, Washington officials said.

A few weeks later, as Gilani was en route to Washington, the civilian government announced in a late night communiqué that the Interior Ministry had taken command of the ISI, an unprecedented action in Pakistan.

The move to take hold of the spy agency, which is controlled by the military, was interpreted here as an effort to impress the Bush administration that the civilian government was prepared to put the ISI back in its box.

Instead, the action badly misfired. The military insisted that the civilian government reverse itself. Gilani landed in Washington with relations between the two intelligence agencies at a low point.

Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to make strides across the tribal regions. The army, which has performed poorly in counterinsurgency tasks, called in airstrikes against Taliban positions in the Bajaur District in the past week after the insurgents forced paramilitary convoys to retreat with heavy losses and casualties.

"The tide of Talibanization is overwhelming us," said Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst. "The very large majority of people think the war on terror is wrong, and by default they are supporting the Taliban. The leaders don't have the capacity and they don't have the time to talk about it."