The security crisis in Pakistan over the last month achieved what neither President Barack Obama nor George Bush could: It focused the Pakistani government and the Army on the internal threat they face from Taliban and other militants.
But will it last?
As the threat has receded in recent days, U.S. officials have begun to worry that the urgency among Pakistani officials for taking far-reaching steps against the Taliban will also shrivel as the immediate crisis fades.
“We have seen—I have certainly seen—over the last couple of years, bursts of fighting and engagement and…and they are not sustained,” Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters Monday after a recent visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan
Obama will be trying to prevent such backsliding when he meets face-to-face Wednesday with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at the White House, along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In preparation for the three-way meetings, their aides have been discussing the details of an expanded U.S. aid program aimed at encouraging Pakistan not to slip back into ignoring the militant threat it faces.
U.S. officials in recent years have used a combination of encouragement and pressure aimed at Pakistan government in hopes of heading off efforts to reach short-term peace deals with the militants. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month warned against “abdicating to the Taliban” by allowing extremists to impose Islamic law.
U.S. officials have also signaled their interest in reaching out to Zardari’s political opponents, a move apparently aimed at reminding him ahead of his meeting with Obama that support from Washington should not be taken for granted.
It's unclear whether these tactics will produce the results Obama wants.
Among other steps, U.S. officials are pushing for the three presidents to announce a new joint strategy under which the U.S. will provide stepped-up training for Pakistani troops, additional helicopters, night vision equipment and other hardware vital for counterinsurgency, and support for joint border posts aimed at halting the flow of Taliban fighters across the Afghan-Pakistan border.
At least as important as the hardware, U.S. officials say will be getting the Pakistani government to undertake counter-insurgency programs at winning over the population in areas like the Swat valley, where they often now face a choice between aligning with militants, or death.
The Pakistani military has succeeded in pushing back the Taliban, but U.S. officials insist that Pakistan needs to take additional steps in the aftermath of the offensive to ensure that it consolidates the gains and wins over the local population.
American officials are also hopeful that they can win broad agreement from Zardari and Karzai on a set of benchmarks, aimed at laying the groundwork for sustained Pakistani and Afghan moves against the Taliban insurgency in the coming year.
Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and a former State Department official, warned that the Obama administration was underestimating the resistance within the Pakistani military to confronting the Taliban threat. Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, might be in favor of greater focus on the Taliban threat, but there is deep resistance within the country’s military and intelligence services to shifting away from India, Pakistan’s historic rival.
He said the offer of a massive aid package was not that different than the approach tried by the Bush administration in hopes of getting Pakistan to undertake sustained operations against the Taliban.
“Right now all we have are carrots,” he said. “We’ve tried this before and we have very little to show for it.”
But Obama administration officials say their approach toward Pakistan differs from the Bush administrations’ in important ways.
To get around the resistance within the Pakistani Army, Obama administration officials are focusing more attention on building up the capabilities of the Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, a paramilitary organization responsible for protecting the western border regions. There are currently fewer than a hundred U.S. Special Forces personnel in the country doing low-visibility training, much of it aimed at turning the Frontier Corps into a more cohesive and better equipped force.
As part of the supplemental appropriations bill in Congress, the administration is seeking an additional $400 million for Pakistani forces to expand the fight against the Taliban. But the administration request also includes $1.4 billion in economic assistance for Pakistan aimed at shoring up the country’s economy and at expanding civilian counterinsurgency efforts in the tribal areas.
Despite concerns about his plunging popularity, U.S. officials say Zardari has enough support in the Pakistani parliament to survive in office for now, but not enough to force the Pakistani Army to undertake the far-reaching counterinsurgency effort that U.S. officials say is vital.