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U.S. Options in Pakistan Limited

In deference to Pakistani objections, the administration has not initiated covert ground attacks, approved by the Bush administration last year, in mountain villages farther to the north, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where it believes high-value al-Qaeda figures are located. But Obama authorized stepped-up attacks on the area by missiles launched from unmanned drone aircraft.

Although the missile attacks are privately approved by the Pakistani government, despite its public denunciations, they are highly unpopular among the public. As Zardari's domestic problems have grown, the Obama administration last month cut the frequency of the attacks. Some senior U.S. officials think they have reached the point of diminishing returns and the administration is debating the rate at which they should continue.

Always simmering, administration concern about Pakistani governance rose sharply last month when the Parliament approved an agreement between regional authorities and the Taliban to authorize sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley, located about 100 miles northwest of Islamabad. Rather than lay down their arms in exchange, Taliban forces began moving eastward. By the third week in April, they had established a presence in Buner district, 60 miles from the capital, with no apparent government resistance.

The day after the Buner reports surfaced, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton infuriated the Pakistani government by telling Congress it was "abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists" and that the situation posed a "mortal threat" to the world.

"Absolutely, they're getting irritated," a senior U.S. official said of the Pakistanis. Clinton, he said, "knows she went too far" in her unscripted testimony. "But on the other hand," he said, "it was that kind of statement that helped wake up the Pakistanis."

A Pakistani military offensive in the Buner region was underway Tuesday, even as Obama's national security team met at the White House, and continued through the weekend. Administration officials said they were watching to see whether the military followed through or would simply stop without finishing the job, as it has in the past.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's government says it is in no mood for criticism or conditions on aid. After "billions of dollars were poured into Pakistan under the dictatorship" of Gen. Pervez Musharraf by the Bush administration, Pakistani ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani said yesterday, the Obama administration has produced little but promises and disapproval of the democratically elected government.

"It is unfair to blame the civilian leadership that is bravely mobilizing the nation against terrorism when it is our American partners who have also slowed us down in the war effort by slowing down the flow of assistance," Haqqani said. "We trust that President Obama's emphasis on Pakistan will also translate promises into deliverables."

"You can't spend more in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, "and then wonder why the effort in Pakistan is lagging behind."

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