washingtonpost.com
In U.S., Much Interest in Pakistani Election but Few Options

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

Terrorist attacks, civil upheaval and a parliamentary election today that will probably shape the battle against radical extremism have moved Pakistan to the hottest of front burners within the Bush administration.

Nearly every week since November, the White House has received detailed intelligence briefings -- known as "deep dives" -- on everything from President Pervez Musharraf's struggle to retain power to the minutiae of the Pakistani army's search for al-Qaeda members in the country's western mountains. President Bush has chaired numerous national security meetings and Vice President Cheney sends a stream of queries to his underlings.

Top U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, have traveled to Islamabad in recent weeks, seeking to tighten the bilateral embrace.

"If you said there were A, B, C and D leagues of diplomatic and security engagement," one high-ranking official said, "this is A league."

Yet despite intense efforts to anticipate and direct events, the administration has no clear idea of what the immediate post-election future will bring, few ways of influencing it and a policy that amounts over the short term to little more than crossing one's fingers and hoping for the best.

There are fears that Musharraf and the waning political forces that support him will try to rig today's vote, which could provoke a violent backlash. While Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, Musharraf's handpicked successor as armed forces chief of staff, has pledged that the military will be subordinate to a new civilian government, there is no way to predict the army's response to violence. But for now, the administration sees little choice but to see what happens.

When Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher was pressed recently by lawmakers for a "Plan B," beyond advocating electoral fairness and transparency, he had little to offer. Various scenarios had been gamed out, Boucher told a House oversight hearing late last month: "Until you see the actual situation, it's very hard to decide precisely how to deal with it."

He continued: "Exactly what we would do, in the case of widespread violence after the election, would really depend on what it was and where it came from. If it were ignited by the militants, there's a chance that we could work and see the society band together. But if it were the result of electoral fraud, that, obviously, creates a much more complicated situation." It is "a real possibility," he said, but "I don't think I'm really able to give you a clear answer right now as to exactly what we would do."

It was not at all certain that Election Day would even arrive, given Pakistan's rocky and deteriorating path over the past several months -- bombs exploding in the cities, Musharraf's firing of many Supreme Court justices and suspension of the constitution, and the assassination of political leader Benazir Bhutto.

"Every time I say something about 'after February 18,' " said a senior State Department official, "one of my experts says, 'if we get to February 18.' You can just never underestimate the chance of something terrible happening in Pakistan."

U.S. inability to influence events has left policy in "suspended animation," said a counterterrorism official. Another official said: "I wouldn't want to call it a glide path, but there's some element of truth in that." They were among a half-dozen senior officials interviewed for this article across the government's national security branches -- none of whom was authorized to discuss the sensitive issue on the record.

Political upheaval has exacerbated long-standing anxiety over the strength and determination of Pakistan's pursuit of al-Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border. Suspicions persist that the Pakistani intelligence service, a Taliban patron before U.S. forces overthrew the Islamist government in Kabul in 2001, continues to protect the Taliban's exiled leadership and to facilitate its resurgent operations across the border into Afghanistan.

But the State Department has prevailed for the moment in opposing the U.S. Special Operations Command's eagerness to take matters into its own hands and dispatch small, clandestine counterinsurgency units into the FATA. Both the White House and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates were convinced that launching such incursions without the Pakistani government's permission, particularly in the current anti-American climate there, would likely backfire.

A counterinsurgency training program for Pakistani special forces is ongoing, as is a constant flow of dollars for military equipment and "reimbursement" for Pakistan's efforts against al-Qaeda. A newly authorized "Security Development Plan" will spend about $150 million this year to expand, equip and train the FATA's paramilitary Frontier Corps.

The program, including about 30 U.S. and British military personnel, will be centered in two new training centers, built near Quetta in southern Baluchistan province and farther north in Warsak, about 20 miles outside Peshawar. The administration has also asked Congress to fund a $750 million, five-year economic development program for the remote territories.

Beyond that, the United States remains "ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis and to partner with them, to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations," Gates said late last month, although Pakistan continues to decline the offer.

The Bush administration has developed contingency plans in the event that election-related violence brings a breakdown of government control over Pakistan's nuclear weapons or if a collapse of border security opens the floodgates into Afghanistan for terrorists. Several sources observed that the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, posted nearby in Afghanistan, is available to stem "a serious, total, humongous, historical falling-apart," as one official put it.

But the immediate challenges will probably be less cataclysmic and more complicated. The only certainty is the fast-approaching end of the status quo -- 6 1/2 years of virtually unquestioned U.S. support for the once all-powerful Musharraf, and more than $10 billion in aid, in exchange for his commitment to the fight against al-Qaeda. At the very least, he will be forced to share power with other players, including Kiyani and a newly elected parliament and prime minister.

The future balance among political and military leaders is one of many unknowns. Musharraf will remain in office but is deeply unpopular. Alterations he made in the constitution to enhance the powers of the presidency could be erased by a new parliamentary, and a two-thirds vote could throw him out of office.

Both Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, apparently poised to win a majority, and the likely second-place winner -- the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government Musharraf toppled in a 1999 military coup -- have said they share Washington's anti-terrorism objectives in Pakistan. Kiyani, who studied at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has reassured recent U.S. visitors that the strong bilateral partnership will continue.

As in Iraq, where four years of a military and reconstruction policy now acknowledged to be misguided brought near-collapse, the administration thinks it has the right long-term strategy for Pakistan if it can just get past the uncertain electoral period. "In 2002 and 2003, we sort of stopped pursuing the Taliban ourselves," the State Department official acknowledged. "I don't know how much we were pushing the Pakistanis to go after them, but I doubt it was very much, because we saw the major threat as being al-Qaeda."

U.S. policymakers, pleased with Musharraf's aggressive moves during that period against Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda remnants who had taken up residence in the FATA, did not focus on the resurgent Taliban until the past two years. Nor did they focus on the advantages of democratic governance and the need to provide long-term, substantial development assistance to the FATA and to look at Afghanistan and Pakistan as a strategic unit for policymaking.

After years of sticking by Musharraf despite frustration with the up-and-down pace of his counterterrorism zeal and warnings from within and outside the administration that ignoring his autocratic ways would come back to haunt them, many officials appear ready to abandon him. Much of their faith has been transferred to Kiyani.

Officials said they recognize that Kiyani, as well as potential new elected leaders, are more focused on Pakistan's priorities in the neighborhood than on those of the United States. While worried about the recent spread of attacks from FATA-based terrorists and bin Laden's call to make Pakistan proper a target, Pakistani leaders still see India as their main strategic concern.

The eagerness with which Kiyani has been adopted by many U.S. officials has made some wonder if the pitfalls of relying on a strongman have not really been learned.

In a recent visit to Islamabad, sources said, Mullen and Hayden appealed to Kiyani for a faster response time to U.S. intelligence information passed along on terrorist targets in the FATA. Cheney made a nearly identical case to Musharraf during a visit last year, with little result.

"Here's the thing," a senior administration official said. "If you become chief of staff of a large military force with a proud record and elite status in your country, you're going to be an impressive guy. If we send people in to meet with him, they're going to be 'good meetings.' People are going to talk about a 'fresh face.' " The official said that "from everything I know, I think he's a good guy," but "I'm not ready to anoint him."

Besides, he added, putting the U.S. stamp of approval on Kiyani too publicly "is not doing him any good in Pakistan."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company