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Pakistan Turns Down Key U.S. Antiterrorism Requests, Raising Questions For Obama

  • Heather Maher

Will relations between U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari suffer after the recent disagreement?

Will relations between U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari suffer after the recent disagreement?

Washington's relationship with Pakistan suffered a fresh blow this week with reports that Pakistan's leader has rejected a personal request from U.S. President Barack Obama to expand the army's operations in tribal areas where members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are known to enjoy safe haven.

Pakistani military officials and diplomats say President Asif Ali Zardari told Obama in late November, before the White House's new "Af-Pak" strategy was announced, that the country's military would move against the Islamic extremists in the border areas on its own schedule, and not the accelerated pace Washington requested.

Pakistan's military chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, has also reportedly told General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, that no major military operations are planned anytime soon in North Waziristan.

The area is a known sanctuary for the Afghan-Taliban-allied Haqqani network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, a Taliban commander. According to U.S. military officials, Siraj's fighters pose the biggest threat to U.S. forces in the eastern part of Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials have signaled that going after Siraj Haqqani, who has long been an asset of Pakistan's security agencies, isn't in its national interest, given U.S. plans to begin pulling its troops out of Afghanistan in 18 months.

Taking into consideration the possibility that Siraj Haqqani might find himself in power once the Americans leave, Islamabad appears to prefer remaining on friendly terms with him, even at the risk of angering Washington.

Offering Carrots

Pakistan's refusal to cooperate with two of Obama's key requests under his new strategy raises hard questions about the future relationship between Islamabad and Washington.

Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani - safe in Pakistan?
According to "The New York Times," U.S. officials last month warned the heads of Pakistan's military and intelligence service that if it does not move forcefully against the Taliban on its own soil, the United States will.

The White House says that message -- which was delivered by National Security Adviser General James Jones and White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan -- wasn't meant to be an ultimatum.

But Obama's vow that the United States "cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear," and Pakistan's declaration that a major safe haven is off-limits, means Washington and Islamabad are at an impasse.

The question now is, will the relationship reach a "tipping point" where the United States abandons attempts at friendly cooperation? Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution, doesn't think so.

"I've asked administration officials that and I've gotten no indication at all that there's such a tipping point, or there's such an end point," Cohen says.

"And if there is, we're very, very far away from it -- which doesn't mean we'll tolerate Pakistan looking the other way when insurgents and terrorists use their territory but I think that we're in this with Pakistan for the duration."

To encourage Pakistan's cooperation, Congress this fall approved a White House request for more military assistance and a massive $7.5 billion aid package for schools, hospitals, and development over the next five years.

In addition, according to "The New York Times," Obama has privately promised military and civilian leaders in Pakistan a partnership of "unlimited potential" that means Washington will consider any proposal Islamabad puts forth.

Pakistan Pushes Back

However, Washington's introduction of strict conditions on funding to the Pakistani Army in the $7.5 billion aid package, known as the Kerry-Lugar bill, prompted a harsh reaction among top military brass in Islamabad.

And as this week's developments have shown, combined with Zardari's tenuous leadership position, the White House isn't sure Pakistan can be persuaded to go along with its new approach:

"They're worried. The reports from Pakistan are that [Zardari is] very unpopular, almost as unpopular as Americans are," Cohen says. "And we're trying to prosecute a war in Afghanistan and also we're encouraging [the Pakistanis] to fight a war in Pakistan, with unpopular leadership in both countries."

Further complicating cooperation efforts, reports surfaced on December 16 that some branches of the Pakistani military and intelligence services are engaged in what U.S. officials describe as "a campaign to harass American diplomats."

"The New York Times" reported that the campaign "includes the refusal to extend or approve visas for more than 100 American officials and the frequent searches of American diplomatic vehicles in major cities."

'Tough Love'

The reports come as U.S. officials debate an expansion of the CIA's deeply unpopular but effective drone program, which sends unmanned planes, piloted from office buildings in suburban Washington, into the country to deliver missile strikes on suspected terrorist leaders.

Attacks by pilotless drones on suspected Taliban targets in Pakistan have aroused public ire.
Drones have killed at least 10 senior Al-Qaeda leaders since 2008, but also some 300 civilians in the past two years, according to the New America Foundation, which bases its number on U.S. and Pakistani media reports. The drone campaign is one of the main reasons for anti-American sentiment among Pakistanis.

Until now, the strikes have been limited to Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal regions near the Afghan border, where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are thought to have established sanctuaries.

But an expansion under consideration could involve missile strikes on Quetta, a city of nearly 1 million people where Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, is suspected to be hiding.

Obama himself is said to be deeply conflicted about whether to approve the expansion.

Cohen's view is that, despite the disagreements on specific military action, the United States needs Pakistan. And Pakistan, though reluctant to admit it, needs the United States to help it keep the country out of the hands of militant extremists.

Since October, suicide bombings and explosions blamed on Islamist militants have killed more than 500 Pakistanis.

"I think that the strategy has changed somewhat towards Pakistan. And I would characterize it as 'tough love.' We love the Pakistanis but we really, we will have conditions and we will insist that they carry out their side of the bargain," Cohen says.

"The money that we're providing to the Pakistan Army, the equipment, and even in the long run, to the Pakistani civil sector, isn't there simply because of the 'love' part, but we want them to be tough on people and groups who are their enemy but also our enemy," he continues. "It's not as if we'll be asking them to do something which is against their interest."

Cohen says the alternative to a U.S.-Pakistani partnership would be either a massive reorganization of U.S. strategy, or the collapse of Pakistan as a democratic state.

And no one in Washington, he believes, wants the latter.

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