The War in Pakistan

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

SHORTLY AFTER Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush famously declared that other countries must choose between supporting the United States and supporting terrorism, and that those that harbored al Qaeda would be treated as the enemy. In the years since, he has refrained from applying that tough principle in practice -- which is lucky for Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Ever since the war on terrorism began, this meretricious military ruler has tried to be counted as a U.S. ally while avoiding an all-out campaign against the Islamic extremists in his country, who almost surely include Osama bin Laden and his top deputies. Despite mounting costs in American lives and resources, he has gotten away with it.

Gen. Musharraf and his aides, such as Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, boast that Pakistan has arrested hundreds of al Qaeda militants and deployed tens of thousands of troops in the border region near Afghanistan. Yet Gen. Musharraf has never directed his forces against the Pashtun Taliban militants who use Pakistan as a base to wage war against American and Afghan forces across the border. He has never dismantled the Islamic extremist groups that carry out terrorist attacks against India. He has never cleaned up the Islamic madrassas that serve as a breeding ground for suicide bombers. He has pardoned and protected the greatest criminal proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in history, A.Q. Khan, who aided Libya, North Korea and Iran. And he has broken promises to give up his military office or return Pakistan to democracy.

The consequences of this record are that al Qaeda has continued to operate from Pakistan, while U.S. and allied troops have been unable to pacify southern Afghanistan. More than 125 American soldiers have been killed there in the past year, many of them by militants crossing the border. Osama bin Laden is apparently secure enough to have released an audiotape last week threatening more attacks inside the United States.

The Bush administration is still providing Gen. Musharraf $600 million in annual military and economic aid and treating him as a major ally. But in the absence of effective Pakistani action, it has also stepped up its own clandestine operations in the border areas where al Qaeda and its allies are based. At least three times in the past year, drone aircraft armed with missiles have attacked terrorist targets; most recently, a strike on a Pakistani village this month killed at least 13 people, several important al Qaeda operatives possibly among them.

In keeping with his double game, Gen. Musharraf's government publicly criticized the latest attack even though his intelligence service reportedly cooperated with it. Now he and Mr. Aziz, who met with Mr. Bush yesterday, are saying U.S. forces should carry out no more such attacks without Pakistani agreement. We'll assume that's more of their bluster. Even if it is not, Mr. Bush should ignore it. Gen. Musharraf perhaps cannot be forced to side decisively with the United States against the terrorists, as the administration once hoped -- though much more could be done to raise the price of his feckless cooperation. But Mr. Bush must take every available measure to eliminate the al Qaeda and Taliban operations in Pakistan. If targets can be located, they should be attacked -- with or without Gen. Musharraf's cooperation.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company