U.S. tense over Pakistan

The army and aid organizations struggle to cope with the severity of a disaster that has killed more than 1,600 people and displaced millions.
By Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 9:10 PM

Political upheaval in Pakistan and a sudden rupture in relations with the United States have heightened the Obama administration's concern about the stability of a crucial partner in its Afghanistan war strategy.

Pakistani authorities closed the principal U.S. military supply route into Afghanistan on Thursday in response to an early morning U.S. airstrike that they said killed three Pakistani soldiers. A Foreign Ministry statement demanded "immediate and full explanation of this serious incident," the latest in a series of air incursions that have occurred amid a sharp spike in CIA drone attacks inside Pakistan.

A Pentagon spokesman said that the airstrike was under investigation.

Thursday's events came within the context of ongoing political disruption in Pakistan, where the unpopular civilian government is under siege for corruption and incompetence in dealing with floods that have left millions homeless.

U.S. officials pointed to recent signs that Pakistan's powerful army and opposition parties are positioning themselves to install a new civilian government to replace President Asif Ali Zardari and his prime minister in the coming months. In a meeting with them Monday, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani "conveyed the concerns of the people" in no uncertain terms, according to a senior Pakistani security official.

"There's a fair degree of disarray," said one of several administration officials who discussed the increasingly tense situation on condition of anonymity. "The government can't really handle the crisis of the flood, and there's lots of political jockeying" as government and opposition figures look for advantage in a potential new lineup.

U.S. officials indicated that the administration has begun to contemplate the effects of a change, engineered through Zardari's resignation as head of his political party, the dissolution of the current coalition government, or a call for new elections under the Pakistani constitution, rather than any overt action by the military. Some suggested that a new, constitutionally-approved government that was more competent and popular, and had strong military backing, might be better positioned to support U.S. policies.

None of the officials had a clear sense of who might head such a government. Although Nawaz Sharif, head of the leading opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, has grown increasingly outspoken in his criticism of Zardari, U.S. and Pakistani officials and analysts said it was unlikely he would be interested in taking over the government at this point.

"The best outcome here is that the instability will be taken advantage of by the military in ways that aren't bad, getting rid of lots of cronies" who currently fill government positions, the administration official said.

Worse-case scenario

From the U.S. point of view, he said, the worst-case scenario would be an attempt by Pakistan's Supreme Court to oust Zardari by revoking his immunity from prosecution in a dated Swiss money-laundering case that could render his 2008 election illegal and throw the government into chaos. Scheduled to rule last Monday, the court has postponed action for two more weeks.

"If things happen in a constitutional way, there is no burning issue here," a second U.S. official said. "At the end of the day, we're committed to a civilian government and a constitutional process. . . . But if the [political] crisis becomes a distraction" to the war effort or crucial flood reconstruction, "or becomes destabilizing and brings people into the streets - something that could very well happen - that's not a good thing. "

Although President Obama's war-fighting strategy is focused on Afghanistan, the administration has long believed that Pakistan is the key to success in vanquishing the Taliban and eliminating al-Qaeda's activities in the region. Both groups, and numerous allied organizations, are based in the Pakistani border area, where the Pakistani military and intelligence service see them as a hedge against an unfriendly government in Afghanistan and have resisted U.S. entreaties to launch all-out attacks against them.

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