With Vice President Cheney’s “unannounced” visit to Islamabad, the Bush Administration appears to be finally waking up to the fact that the situation in Pakistan has deteriorated to the point that it threatens not only Musharraf’s status as our primary ally in the region in fighting the War on Terror but also the safety and viability of the government of Afghanistan.
Musharraf’s Faustian bargains with several northern tribes – tribes allied with the Taliban and who tolerate al-Qaeda operatives in their midst – has backfired in spectacular fashion. The strictures in these agreements against crossing the border to fight in Afghanistan have been honored in the breach as NATO troops report Taliban fighters pouring across the border in great numbers. And since President Musharraf prohibits NATO forces from carrying out “hot pursuit” missions into Pakistan in order to catch and kill the Taliban when they retreat, northern tribal areas have become safe havens for the enemy who can then rest, refit, and re-enter Afghanistan virtually at will. Pakistani border guards don’t stop them. And the Pakistani army is precluded from operating in those areas as a result of the agreements.
With all this in mind – plus the presence of al-Qaeda in territory that the Pakistani army cannot operate – Musharraf’s credentials as our most important ally against radical Islamic terror groups have been tarnished considerably. In fact, the Administration may very well be losing confidence in the Pakistani President as a partner in both the War on Terror and in supporting the government of President Karzai in Afghanistan.
I have discussed on numerous occasion the impossible position Musharaff finds himself in as a result of his alliance with the United States. As a result, the Pakistani President has been trying – unsuccessfully – to juggle his need to please the Bush Administration (who have doled out $5 billion in military and economic aid over the last 4 years) and his need to appease elements in his own government who support the Taliban and even al-Qaeda.
It is true that Musharraf initially played the role of strong ally, locking up hundreds of Taliban fighters and al-Qaeda foot soldiers following our invasion of Afghanistan. And their help in capturing high value targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has been invaluable.
But much of that support has fallen by the wayside. Indeed, it took a herculean diplomatic effort on the part of the United States to keep Musharraf from releasing hundreds of those detainees following his agreement last fall with North Waziristan tribes. Apparently some high level Taliban prisoners were scheduled for release and only the intercession of both the State Department and the CIA prevented that from happening.
And now it appears that Musharaff isn’t even going through the motions of trying to keep the Taliban from Afghanistan soil and is instead blaming the Afghans themselves for their resurgence:
Underscoring growing alarm in the West at how militants have regained ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday sought Pakistani aid to help counter al-Qaida’s efforts to regroup, officials said.
However, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf insisted his forces have already “done the maximum” possible against extremists in their territory _ and insisted that other allies also shoulder responsibility in the U.S.-led war on terrorism…
“Cheney expressed U.S. apprehensions of regrouping of al-Qaida in the tribal areas and called for concerted efforts in countering the threat,” Musharraf’s office said.
He also “expressed serious U.S. concerns on the intelligence being picked up of an impending Taliban and al-Qaida ‘spring offensive’ against allied forces in Afghanistan,” the statement said.
If Musharraf actually believes he has done “the maximum possible” to keep the Taliban from infiltrating in Afghanistan, his value as an ally in the War on Terror has dropped considerably.
Fueled by profits from a record poppy harvest in Afghanistan, emboldened by their political victories over Musharraf, and benefiting from help received by elements inside Pakistan including conservative religious parties and the Pakistani intelligence service, the Taliban appear poised to make a major effort this spring to inflict ruinous casualties on NATO troops that would almost certainly awaken the European left and send them into the streets calling for a withdrawal of their nation’s forces from the fight. And Musharraf, buffeted by mounting pressure from all segments of Pakistani society to pull back from his relationship with the US, is probably at the end of his rope and can do little else to assist us overtly in the fight against the Taliban and radical Islamists.
I would suggest the Administration start dusting off their “worst case scenario” plans regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan. And if there’s a rabbit they can pull out a diplomatic hat that will alter the political situation even marginally in Pakistan, now’s the time.