Taliban Advance in Pakistan Prompts Shift by U.S.

Pakistani soldiers prepare to fire at suspected hideouts of Taliban insurgents in Lower Dir district during an ongoing operation launched Sunday.
Pakistani soldiers prepare to fire at suspected hideouts of Taliban insurgents in Lower Dir district during an ongoing operation launched Sunday. (By Mohammad Sajjad -- Associated Press)
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Pakistani government's inability to stem Taliban advances has forced the Obama administration to recalibrate its Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy a month after unveiling it.

What was planned as a step-by-step process of greater military and economic engagement with Pakistan -- as immediate attention focused on Afghanistan -- has been rapidly overtaken by the worsening situation on the ground. Nearly nonstop discussions over the past two days included a White House meeting Monday between Obama and senior national security officials and a full National Security Council session on Pakistan yesterday.

A tripartite summit Obama will host here next week with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will center heavily on the Pakistan problem rather than the balance originally intended, officials said.

New consideration is being given to a long-dormant proposal to allow U.S. counterinsurgency training for Pakistani troops somewhere outside the country, circumventing Pakistan's refusal to allow American "boots on the ground" there. "The issue now is how do you do that, where do you do it, and what money do we have to do it with?" said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity yesterday.

On Capitol Hill, anxious lawmakers proposed breaking $400 million out of the administration's pending $83 billion supplemental spending request in order to fund immediate counterinsurgency and economic assistance to Pakistan. "We could pass it really quickly, in just a matter of days," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who just returned from Pakistan. Waiting for debate and approval of the entire supplemental, Kyl said, "could be too little, too late."

"Certainly, we are discussing with the administration what is needed, and I think that all of us are very concerned about what's happening in Pakistan," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters.

The administration shares that concern, even as it is struggling to retain control of its own policy and its full spending request, including money for the Iraq and Afghan wars and other issues. "Our position is that if, in fact, some money would be able to be fast-tracked so that we could get started earlier [in Pakistan], given the urgency of the situation, that's a good idea," the senior administration official said. "But we wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize" the rest of the supplemental. "We do not support anything that derails that."

The breakout proposal, the subject of a meeting of national security deputies at the White House yesterday, appeared to have lost steam by the end of the day. But administration officials said they were hopeful that some provision could be agreed on to make funds more quickly available for Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, returned last weekend from his 11th trip to Pakistan "more concerned than I've seen him after any prior visit," a Pentagon official said, adding that at a meeting with senior aides Monday, "the word [Mullen] used was 'alarmed.' "

"We're not saying the sky is falling," the official said, "but it's raining pretty hard in Pakistan."

The level of concern -- always high where nuclear-armed and politically tumultuous Pakistan is concerned -- began to rise two weeks ago, when the Pakistani Parliament passed an agreement to authorize sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley, about 100 miles northwest of Islamabad. Taliban forces had expanded in the area, and the agreement was part of a deal in which the government said the extremists would lay down their arms.

Instead, the Taliban advanced farther east, to within 60 miles of the capital, with no apparent government resistance. On Sunday, after increasingly stern public statements from the administration and some Taliban withdrawal, the government launched a military offensive in the area, backed yesterday by helicopter gunships.

But on the eve of Obama's first meeting with Zardari, tensions were running high between the two governments. "We see more duplicity than ambivalence" about the fight against extremists, one participant in the administration's strategic review of the region said of Pakistani authorities.

Other officials expressed skepticism that the Pakistani offensive would continue. "The test of all these Pakistani military operations -- because we've seen them from time to time in the past -- is always their sustainability," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Beyond this week's combat, officials said they were still looking for Pakistan to begin moving large quantities of its half-million-strong military away from the eastern border with India, its historic adversary, and toward Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the west.

Staff writers Scott Wilson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.

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