By Karen DeYoung and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; A10
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has resisted a direct appeal from President Obama for a rapid expansion of Pakistani military operations in tribal areas and has called on the United States to speed up military assistance to Pakistani forces and to intervene more forcefully with India, its traditional adversary.
In a written response to a letter from Obama late last month, Zardari said his government was determined to take action against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and allied insurgent groups attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan from the border area inside Pakistan. But, he said, Pakistan's efforts would be based on its own timeline and operational needs.
The message was reinforced Monday by Pakistan's military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, who told Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, that the United States should not expect "a major operation in North Waziristan" in the coming months, according to a senior U.S. defense official. North Waziristan, one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border, is a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban.
The letters between the two leaders, while couched in diplomatic niceties and pledging mutual respect and increased cooperation against insurgents, reflect ongoing strains in a relationship that is crucial to both.
The long-term success of Obama's new Afghanistan strategy depends on Pakistan moving forcefully against Taliban havens in the FATA and Baluchistan. U.S. ground troops are prohibited from operating inside Pakistan. To bolster Pakistan's government and military, the administration proposed, and Congress approved, a tripling in economic and development assistance and increased military aid.
In return, the United States wants Pakistan to "move on our mutual interests, which includes the Haqqani network and includes the Taliban in Pakistan," Vice President Biden said Tuesday in an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." His reference was to the North Waziristan-based faction led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Siraj, and the main Afghan Taliban organization, which are fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistani counterinsurgency operations this year have primarily targeted separate but allied groups -- the Pakistani Taliban based in South Waziristan and operating in the Swat Valley region -- whose attacks are directed toward Pakistani government targets.
"We're committed to this war, but we'll fight it on our terms. . . . We will prioritize targets based on our interests. We don't want them to be dictated to us," a Pakistani intelligence official said. He added: "The Pakistani Taliban is the clear and present danger. They are what matters most. Once we are done with them, we will go after the Haqqani network."
The official, like others interviewed for this article, agreed to discuss the sensitive U.S-Pakistan relationship only on the condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials and regional analysts have long suspected that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate maintains relationships with Haqqani, a former Taliban defense minister in Kabul, and his top commanders. Analysts say the ISI and some in the Pakistani military regard Haqqani as a valuable asset who could be useful in promoting Pakistani interests in Afghanistan -- including efforts to keep Indian influence there at bay -- after U.S. forces begin to depart.
Officials who described Petraeus's meeting with Kiyani in Islamabad said the U.S. general expressed some irritation at Pakistan's complaints against the United States but accepted what one U.S. official called Kiyani's explanation of "the limits of their forces in terms of capacity."
Pakistan, another U.S. defense official said, is "already doing an extraordinary amount." They are "a sovereign nation," he said, and "all we can do is keep encouraging them to keep it up."
Kiyani, the official said, expressed concern that stepped-up U.S. operations in Afghanistan are pushing insurgents into Pakistan. He said that the military has begun raids into North Waziristan and is working with tribes in the area to expel Uzbek and Arab insurgents.
Conspiracy theories abound in Pakistan regarding U.S. intentions and actions, and Zardari, with a weakening hold on power and under strong military and political pressure, is anxious not to be seen as kowtowing to U.S. pressure. Both the military and the civilian government publicly deny cooperation with U.S. attacks on insurgent targets inside Pakistan, launched from CIA-operated unmanned aircraft, and the U.S. military's use of two Pakistani air bases -- Shamsi in Baluchistan and Shahbaz in Jacobabad in Sind province.
The Pakistani military, which ruled the country for a decade until Zardari's election last year, retains significant control over defense and foreign policy. It has been reluctant to shift its focus away from what it sees as an ongoing threat from neighboring India toward increased counterinsurgency against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Closer Indian-U.S. ties and the expansion of India's conventional capabilities have increased suspicion of U.S. aims.
Zardari did not mention India by name in his three-page letter to Obama, which sources reviewed for The Washington Post on the condition that no direct quotes be used. But he made repeated reference to Pakistan's core interests, unresolved historical conflicts and conventional imbalances. He called on Obama to push Pakistan's neighbors toward diplomatic rapprochement. India broke off direct talks with Pakistan last year after terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Pakistan's domestic counterterrorism efforts, Zardari said, were based on the country's own threat assessment and timetable. He noted that military operations in the Swat Valley alone had cost Pakistan $2.5 billion and said that Pakistan expected the United States to provide increased material support.
Despite additional U.S. assistance, the Islamabad government has repeatedly complained that the United States has been slow and stingy, and that it attaches far more strings on aid to the civilian government than to its military predecessor.
Nearly every aspect of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is brittle. Widespread anti-Americanism has focused on the increased presence of U.S. officials administering stepped-up military and economic assistance. In response, the Pakistani government has held up approval of 200 to 300 visas, adding to U.S. irritation.