Pakistani Political Crisis Jeopardizes U.S. Regional Strategy

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pakistan's ongoing political crisis, the Obama administration's first real-time foreign policy emergency, threatens to upend a new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy before it leaves the White House drawing board.

Administration officials are putting the finishing touches on a plan to greatly increase economic and development assistance to Pakistan, and to expand a military partnership considered crucial to striking a mortal blow against al-Qaeda's leadership and breaking the Pakistani-based extremist networks that sustain the war in Afghanistan. Final recommendations on the new strategy may go to President Obama as early as Friday, officials said.

But the weakness of Pakistan's elected government -- backed into a corner by weekend demonstrations that left its political opposition strengthened -- has called into question one of the basic pillars of that plan.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke and other administration officials yesterday congratulated President Asif Ali Zardari for meeting the principal demand of Pakistan's opposition: restoring the former chief justice of the Supreme Court and a group of other deposed judges. But while resolution of the immediate problem "bodes better than the alternative outcome" of political meltdown, Holbrooke said, "the underlying problem still exists."

"We understood from the beginning that the current government is not wildly popular," said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly. "If we're going to sustain a civilian government that can be a counterpart, we need one that has enough basis of support" to carry out the strong counterterrorism policies that are necessary.

"Whatever you think about the importance of engaging with them," the official added, there is little point in doing so while Pakistani political forces are battling in the street. "Nobody is going to fund the money if they think it's not going to do any good. There has to be some sense that our engagement and support contribute to a more stable Pakistan that is going to take on the extremists."

The administration plans to send Congress a supplemental 2009 appropriation, including aid to Pakistan, in the coming days, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is putting the finishing touches on a long-term assistance proposal with a multibillion-dollar price tag.

But "the fact that Congress appropriates money does not mean that it all immediately goes out the door," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds U.S. foreign aid programs. "It's going to depend on events in Pakistan and whether there is confidence here that it can be used effectively.

"There's a strong desire to do whatever we can to help Pakistan combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda," Leahy said. "But if Pakistan is in such a state of internal political turmoil that U.S. aid can't be used effectively, that's going to limit what can be done and also how successful we are in Afghanistan."

Clinton "no question, absolutely," made that point in telephone calls Saturday morning to Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, the senior administration official said.

The U.S. and British governments undertook direct and intense intervention as the crisis was building late last week. In addition to Clinton, Holbrooke was in direct contact with Pakistani leaders, as was British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke directly with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kiyani on Friday, and the U.S. and British ambassadors made repeated, direct contact with Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani over the weekend.

"The international community worked closely with both sides here," Holbrooke said.

Zardari's government, however, was less than pleased with how the intervention unfolded -- especially the contacts with Sharif. The opposition leader, deposed as prime minister by a military coup in 1999, credits then-U.S. President Bill Clinton with helping to save his life following the military action that led to his exile, and he has remained close to Hillary Clinton.

By calling Sharif last weekend, a senior Pakistani official close to Zardari said, Clinton further weakened the government.

The administration's intervention, the official said, "has lasting implications for how much the Zardari government is going to go out on a limb for the U.S., for how much we will trust them."

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