A Strategy for Pakistan

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

PAKISTAN'S NEW democratic government is committed to fighting al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamist movements -- and that may distinguish it from the country's other power centers. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country from 1999 until this year and remains president, has been an enemy of al-Qaeda but did little to disrupt bases of the Taliban, a onetime client of his army. The country's powerful intelligence service, meanwhile, has long nurtured jihadi groups and now stands accused by the CIA of collaborating in recent terrorist bombings in Afghanistan. The new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, who was in Washington this week to meet President Bush, says he is doing his best to convince his country that "this is Pakistan's war." But he seems not to have won the argument within his own government.

This complex situation calls for a careful and flexible response from the United States -- and, to its credit, the outgoing Bush administration is making a relatively good start at fashioning that response. For years, Mr. Bush blindly backed Mr. Musharraf, costing the United States the support of most Pakistanis without producing satisfactory results in the fight against terrorism. Now the administration is transferring its support to the new civilian government, promising more military and economic aid, training in counterterrorism and even help with rising food prices. At the same time, the administration has confronted Pakistani leaders with evidence of links between the intelligence service and Islamist militants. And it is not restraining action of its own when a military target of opportunity presents itself -- as happened Monday, when a U.S. missile attack was aimed at a senior al-Qaeda leader inside Pakistan.

The strike by a CIA Predator aircraft, which may have killed al-Qaeda's top chemical weapons specialist, came on the day that Mr. Bush met with Mr. Gillani, and it caused the latter some embarrassment. Such U.S. attacks invariably provoke a backlash in Pakistan, and government leaders invariably denounce them. Mr. Gillani argues that rather than acting unilaterally, U.S. forces should share intelligence with Pakistan so that it can strike al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. The problem is that, as the prime minister acknowledges, Pakistan lacks the capacity to act and is not likely to obtain it anytime soon. Moreover, intelligence provided to Pakistan may be misused: The CIA believes that some militants have been tipped to U.S. raids by Pakistani intelligence.

The worst thing that could happen to the U.S.-Pakistani relationship would be another large al-Qaeda strike against the United States staged from the tribal areas -- a possibility that is frighteningly real. It's in Pakistan's interest, too, therefore, for the United States to continue searching for and attacking al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan even as it steps up the effort to bolster the civilian government and to train Pakistani forces and support a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the tribal areas. Bipartisan legislation approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week would triple economic aid to Pakistan over the next five years and deserves White House support. Supporting Pakistan's fragile democracy while defending the United States against al-Qaeda will be a tricky balancing act -- but if the latter fails, the former will, as well.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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