U.S.-Pakistan ties tested as evidence shows Taliban connection to Times Square bomb attempt

By Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller
Washington Post staff writers
Sunday, May 9, 2010; 12:01 PM

After more than a year of doling out carrots to Pakistan, the Obama administration has reminded its strategic partner on the Afghanistan border that the U.S. mood could quickly sour if it does not fully cooperate in investigating and acting on ties established between the Times Square bombing suspect and Pakistani insurgent groups.

The warnings so far have been nonspecific and publicly couched in confidence that the Pakistanis will do whatever is required. But anything less could make the continued flow of billions of U.S. economic and security dollars "problematic," officials from both countries said.

This weekend, the administration delivered a formal request to Pakistan for assistance in investigating the suspect's links to Tehrik-e-Taliban, the so-called Pakistani Taliban that the United States has determined was behind the attack. "We know that they helped facilitate it," Attorney General Eric Holder said this morning on ABC's "This Week." "We know that they probably helped finance it and that he was working at their direction."

So far, deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan told CNN, "Pakistani authorities have been very cooperative with us. And so we are sharing information with them."

Administration officials have worded their public statements carefully to promote cooperation and avoid antagonizing Pakistani sensitivities. But they have also sent more pointed messages in private, cautioning that the problems already apparent from a Pakistani connection could quickly and substantially worsen if Pakistan obstructed the investigation in any way.

That message has been delivered in telephone calls between Washington and Islamabad, by U.S. diplomats in Pakistan, and by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan who met Friday with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani.

An ever-closer relationship with Pakistan is at the core of Obama's war strategy in Afghanistan and against al-Qaeda. The nature and outcome of the threatened consequences for noncooperation are subjects the administration has barely begun to contemplate.

"There's going to be enough here to trigger a policy debate," predicted one senior official with access to U.S. intelligence on Pakistan and involvement in White House discussions about the bombing attempt. "This is going to really create a new focus on Pakistan, militants in the tribal areas and their recruitment of and connections" to terror operatives recruited in the West, the official said. Like others who agreed to discuss sensitive U.S.-Pakistan relations and the ongoing bomb investigation, this official would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

The suspect, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who has told investigators that he was trained and directed by the Pakistani Taliban and met with its highest officials during recent visits there. The hapless nature of the plot, and Shahzad's willingness to talk about it freely, led officials to question some aspects of his account. But by the end of last week, FBI investigators and U.S. intelligence had gathered enough evidence to confirm to them that the ties were real.

"We are examining overseas connections that he might have, as well as any people he might have worked with here in the United States," Holder said this morning. The Pakistanis, he said, have been "extremely aggressive...and I think we have been satisfied with the work that they have done.

"We want to make sure that kind of cooperation continues," he said. "To the extent that it does not, we will, as Secretary Clinton indicated, take the appropriate steps. But as of now, with regard to Shahzad, I think we're satisfied with the level of cooperation we've received."

In an interview to be broadcast tonight on CBS's "60 Minutes," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We want more, we expect more," from the Pakistanis. "We've made it very clear that if, heaven forbid, an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences."

To some U.S. officials, Shahzad's story has exposed a growing disconnect between the long-term strategy of patiently wooing Pakistan and the reality of an increasingly direct threat to the U.S. homeland from Pakistani-based militants.

Impatient with the intricacies of Pakistani politics, its anti-American sensitivities and its fixation on India as its greatest strategic threat, these officials see the Times Square incident as weighing in favor of a far more muscular and unilateral U.S. policy. It would include a geographically expanded use of drone missile attacks in Pakistan and pressure for a stronger U.S. military presence there.

To others, however, it is too early to draw firm conclusions about how the Pakistani government will deal with the investigation. For now, the operative administration view is that expanded U.S. aid and strategic ties have begun to pay dividends and "reinforce the point that the strategy we designed over a year ago was the right strategy," one official said.

If the bomb attempt had happened early in the administration, he and likeminded others said, cooperation would have been tenuous at best. Asked whether any change in strategy was being contemplated, a senior U.S. military official responded, "The answer is no."

These officials said that their confidence is not based solely on trust. Pakistan's economy is on the verge of collapse, with gross domestic product falling from more than 8 percent growth in 2005 to under 3 percent last year. More than $3.5 billion in U.S. economic and military assistance is in the pipeline, and a nearly $8 billion International Monetary Fund agreement and a $3.5 billion World Bank financing package are pending.

In economic terms, one Pakistani official said, "the cumulative impact of the U.S. role is enormous."

Insurgent groups with sanctuaries or operations in Pakistan range from al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban networks to domestic organizations including the Pakistani Taliban and Kashmir-focused groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The administration has argued that they increasingly overlap and urged Pakistan to take them all on.

In response, Pakistan has discounted a significant al-Qaeda presence and been slow to break its long-standing intelligence ties with the Afghan Taliban leaders it sees as a hedge against an unfriendly government next door. Far from taking on the Kashmiri groups, it has considered them a strategic asset against its traditional Indian adversary.

Following a series of domestic attacks and suicide bombings, it has conducted fierce and costly offensives over the past year against the Pakistani Taliban in the Afghan border badlands of the northwest frontier and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. The United States has contributed by targeting Pakistani Taliban leaders with drone strikes, and praised the Pakistani military as it drove Taliban forces from their operational base in the FATA region of South Waziristan.

Although the Obama administration has warned Pakistan that the Kashmiri groups are more threat than ally and called for it to expand its military offensive into al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban strongholds in North Waziristan, the United States has said it is willing to be relatively patient.

But that patience, administration officials warned, does not extend to the Shahzad case.

Staff writer Karin Brulliard in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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