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Make-or-Break Moment in Pakistan's Struggle With the Taliban

Rubble is all that is left of a police station in Kadokhel in the Buner district of Pakistan after an attack allegedly at the hands of the Taliban on Thursday.
Rubble is all that is left of a police station in Kadokhel in the Buner district of Pakistan after an attack allegedly at the hands of the Taliban on Thursday. (By Mohammad Sajjad -- Associated Press)
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By David Ignatius
Sunday, May 3, 2009

President Obama convened a crisis meeting at the White House last Monday to hear a report from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had just returned from Pakistan. Mullen described the worrying situation there, with Taliban insurgents moving closer to the capital, Islamabad.

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"It had gotten significantly worse than I expected as the Swat deal unraveled," Mullen explained in an interview. He was referring to a truce brokered in February in the Swat Valley, about 100 miles north of Islamabad. The Pakistani military had expected that the cease-fire would subdue Taliban fighters in Swat. Instead, the Muslim militants surged south into the district of Buner, on the doorstep of the capital.

Listening to Mullen's report at the White House were two senior officials -- Defense Secretary Bob Gates and special envoy Richard Holbrooke -- who were serving in government back in 1979, when a Muslim insurgency toppled the Iranian government, with harmful consequences that persist to this day. The two policy veterans "made the argument that it's worth studying the Iran model," recalls a senior official who took part in the White House meeting.

This was Pakistan week for the administration's foreign policy team, behind the self-congratulatory hubbub over the first 100 days. At a news conference Wednesday, Obama said that he was "gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan." He said his biggest worry was that "the civilian government there right now is very fragile."

The challenge in Pakistan is eerily similar to what the Carter administration faced with Iran: how to encourage the military to take decisive action against a Muslim insurgency without destroying the country's nascent democracy.

And there's a deeper psychological factor, too: how to exercise U.S. power effectively without triggering a backlash from a proud and prickly Muslim population that is scarred by what it sees as a history of American meddling.

"My experience is that knocking them [the Pakistani government and military] hard isn't going to work," said Mullen. "The harder we push, the further away they get." For the crackdown on the Taliban to be successful, he said, "it has to be their will, not ours."

What encourages U.S. officials is that recent events have been a wake-up call for a Pakistani elite in denial about the Taliban threat. One top civilian official said that he was less worried now than three weeks ago, because the military and civilian leaders in Islamabad have realized the danger they face. The Pakistani military has begun an effort to push back the Taliban, with mixed results. The Taliban responded fiercely to an assault Tuesday in Buner and seized three police stations, kidnapping dozens of police and paramilitary troops.

"My biggest concern is whether [the Pakistani government] will sustain it," Mullen said. He has told his Pakistani counterpart, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, that "we are prepared to assist whenever they want." During his recent visit, Mullen toured two Pakistani counterinsurgency training camps and came away impressed.

Mullen said that he hopes the Pakistanis will adopt a classic three-part counterinsurgency strategy -- clearing areas of Taliban control, holding those areas with enough troops so that the local population feels secure and then building through economic development, with U.S. help.

Politically, the United States is looking increasingly to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Muslim League dominates the crucial Punjab region. Officials note that 60 percent of the Pakistani population lives in Punjab and that Sharif's popularity rating there is over 80 percent.

President Asif Ali Zardari is far weaker, politically, and that worries the administration. He'll visit Washington this week to discuss the crisis with Obama.

U.S. officials are exploring ways to reduce the political strain on Zardari caused by U.S. drone attacks on al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the tribal areas. Pakistanis protest these attacks as violations of sovereignty, even though they had been blessed in secret by Zardari's government. This tension could be eased by some public formula for dual control. Explains a senior Obama administration official: "We're looking at how we might find some common way ahead where utilization of the asset could benefit the Pakistanis."

The growing crisis mentality in Washington poses its own threat to a sound Pakistan policy. It could produce red-hot American rhetoric and a corresponding U.S. impatience -- and that, in turn, would only make the Pakistanis more uneasy. Success depends on Islamabad's recognition that it's their problem and that they must act decisively.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.


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