The War in Pakistan

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

FOR MORE than six years, the Bush administration has relied on Pakistan's government and army to combat Taliban and al-Qaeda networks based in the country's tribal territories along the border with Afghanistan. The result has been the strengthening of both networks in the rugged and virtually lawless region; a steady increase in Taliban assaults on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan; and ominous reports that al-Qaeda is using its bases to prepare for new attacks on Western targets, including the United States. By now it is clear that Pakistani army and security forces lack the capacity to defeat the extremists -- and may even support some of the Taliban commanders. Pakistan's army has arranged truces with some of the extremists that don't preclude them from fighting in Afghanistan. U.S officials say that the Pakistani intelligence service was complicit in a July 7 suicide bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul.

In these circumstances President Bush's reported decision in July to step up attacks by U.S. forces in the tribal areas was both necessary and long overdue. According to a count by the Associated Press, there have been seven missile strikes by remotely controlled Predator aircraft in the past month, as well as one ground assault by helicopter-borne American commandos. At least two of the targets have been Taliban commanders reportedly considered friendly by Pakistani intelligence -- including Jalaluddin Haqqani, the alleged author of the Indian embassy bombing. The results of the attacks are hard to gauge, since U.S. officials refuse to discuss them; reports from the remote areas, often by sources sympathetic to the Taliban, frequently allege that most or all of the casualties are civilians.

To its credit, the Bush administration has tried to execute this shift in tactics while preserving its alliance with the Pakistani army and the new civilian government. It's a tricky balancing act: The latest attacks have prompted outraged public statements by the army commander in chief and the prime minister, and there have even been threats to retaliate against American forces. But army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani was briefed by senior U.S. commanders at a summit meeting on an aircraft carrier last month, and his forces still are in line for billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Pakistan's newly elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, also will desperately need U.S. support to extract the country from a worsening economic crisis and move forward with an ambitious program to counter extremism in the tribal territories with economic development.

There's a risk that the missile strikes will prompt a breach between the U.S. and Pakistani armies, or destabilize Mr. Zardari's democratically elected administration, which is the friendliest Washington could hope for in a country with strong anti-American sentiment. Some experts argue that U.S. attacks only increase support for the Taliban. But the group already appears to have a stranglehold on large parts of the tribal territories. U.S. commanders say that victory in Afghanistan is impossible unless Taliban bases in Pakistan are reduced. And no risk to Pakistan's political system or its U.S. relations is greater than that of a second 9/11 staged from the tribal territories. U.S. missile and commando attacks must be backed by the best intelligence and must minimize civilian casualties. But they must continue.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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