U.S. Options in Pakistan Limited

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

As Taliban forces edged to within 60 miles of Islamabad late last month, the Obama administration urgently asked for new intelligence assessments of whether Pakistan's government would survive. In briefings last week, senior officials said, President Obama and his National Security Council were told that neither a Taliban takeover nor a military coup was imminent and that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal was safe.

Beyond the immediate future, however, the intelligence was far from reassuring. Security was deteriorating rapidly, particularly in the mountains along the Afghan border that harbor al-Qaeda and the Taliban, intelligence chiefs reported, and there were signs that those groups were working with indigenous extremists in Pakistan's populous Punjabi heartland.

The Pakistani government was mired in political bickering. The army, still fixated on its historical adversary India, remained ill-equipped and unwilling to throw its full weight into the counterinsurgency fight.

But despite the threat the intelligence conveyed, Obama has only limited options for dealing with it. Anti-American feeling in Pakistan is high, and a U.S. combat presence is prohibited. The United States is fighting Pakistan-based extremists by proxy, through an army over which it has little control, in alliance with a government in which it has little confidence.

The tools most readily at hand are money, weapons, and a mentoring relationship with Pakistan's government and military that alternates between earnest advice and anxious criticism. As criticism has dominated in recent weeks -- along with reports that the administration is wooing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's principal political opponent, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif -- the partnership has grown strained.

"What are the Americans trying to do, micromanage our politics?" a senior Pakistani official said testily. "This is not South Vietnam."

As Zardari arrives this week for his first official visit with Obama -- part of a tripartite summit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- the administration has asked Congress to quickly approve hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency military aid for Pakistan. That money, and billions more over the next several years, is to come with new authority for the Defense Department to decide what to spend it on.

Obama has also backed a five-year $7.5 billion economic assistance package and is resisting congressional efforts to impose strict conditions on any aid to Pakistan. Last month, the administration orchestrated an international donors' conference in Tokyo that netted $5.5 billion in pledges for Pakistan.

When he sits down with Zardari on Wednesday at the White House, Obama will urge him to put more effort into building domestic support by meeting critical public needs and to resolve his differences with Sharif and others so that he can concentrate on governing, according to officials who discussed sensitive and fluid Pakistan issues on the condition of anonymity.

Of particular concern are hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who have been displaced by fighting in the North-West Frontier Province, U.S. officials said.

Security proposals up for discussion with Zardari and other members of his high-level delegation include counterinsurgency training for Pakistani army troops at U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, the United States or elsewhere. The administration wants to expand a small, in-country training force -- now limited to about 70 Americans -- that is working with the Frontier Corps, the local, poorly armed force in the border regions.

As 17,000 additional U.S. troops deploying to southern Afghanistan this spring and summer begin to push Taliban fighters toward the Pakistan border, there are hopes the extremists can be trapped in "hammer and anvil" operations with Pakistani forces in the southern province of Baluchistan. Right now, however, Pakistan fields only one army brigade and about 40,000 minimally trained and equipped Frontier Corps members in the vast region, according to U.S. officials.

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