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2008 In Review: Pakistan Under Pressure As War On Terror Focuses On South Asia

An Islamic militant guards two criminals before their public execution in Khyber tribal region
The year 2008 saw a shift of focus in the war on terrorism -- with attention moving away from Iraq toward South Asia, and consensus developing among Western leaders that Pakistan must be at the center of the global counterterrorism strategy.

Pakistan had been an important element in the war on terrorism before 2008, but with militant attacks across South Asia being linked to Pakistan by its neighbors in the region and Afghanistan's deteriorating security situation, the country has emerged as a new focal point.

Events like the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai during November led U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to call for a South Asia regional strategy in the battle against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

"We need a strategic partnership with all the parties in the region -- Pakistan and India and the Afghan government -- to stamp out the kind of militant violent terrorist extremists that have set up base camps and that are operating in ways that threaten the security of everybody in the international community," Obama said.

"We can't continue to look at Afghanistan in isolation. We have to see it as part of a regional problem that includes Pakistan, includes India, includes Kashmir, includes Iran."

Bhutto Assassination

For Western military and political planners, the shift in focus from Iraq to Pakistan was apparent just before the new year, when Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated on December 27, 2007 as she campaigned in Rawalpindi for parliamentary and provincial elections.

The enormity of Bhutto's assassination and its aftermath would keep Pakistan in the international headlines throughout 2008 -- first, for major changes to the civilian government and, later, for reforms to Pakistan's security and intelligence services.

Within days of Bhutto's assassination, her widower Asif Ali Zardi and her son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari were named as co-chairmen of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

Then, in Pakistan's February elections, the PPP and former Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party -- both opposition parties -- emerged as winners who unseated President Pervez Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

Washington's impatience with Musharraf over his failure to rein in extremist militants along the border with Afghanistan became apparent in July after suicide bombers attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul -- killing 58 people and injuring more than 450.
These groups that are operating openly on Pakistani soil have to be shut down and put away. Many of these groups are deeply involved with Al-Qaeda. They are involved with the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban

Afghan and Indian authorities wasted little time in blaming Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency -- an accusation that is rooted in a complex web of regional conflicts and stress between the three countries.

Soon after Kabul and New Delhi presented evidence to U.S. officials in support of their allegations on the embassy bombing, it became apparent that Washington was had increased pressure on Islamabad to take stronger action against militants and to reform Pakistan's security and intelligence services.

In August, Pakistan's army launched an offensive in the tribal regions along its border with Afghanistan.

Afrasiab Khattak, a Pashtun nationalist politician and peace envoy of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), told RFE/RL as the offensive got under way that Pakistani authorities must rid the Pashtun border regions of militants.

"This situation in our tribal areas is similar to that of pre-9/11 Afghanistan. State authority in those regions has nearly ended. Militants fighting in both Pakistan and Afghanistan now control this area, which threatens the whole region," Khattak said.

"We have repeatedly demanded a solution to this situation because we do not want these regions to turn into the battleground of a global conflict, as global powers respond to the threats emanating from these regions might be tempted to intervene [militarily]."

End Of The Musharraf Era

By mid-August, under domestic political pressure from Pakistan's coalition government, Musharraf resigned from the presidency -- marking the end of an era.

Musharraf, who seized control of the nuclear-capable state through a bloodless military coup in 1999, was considered a key ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

But Musharraf's critics alleged that he was playing a kind of double game with the United States in the war on terrorism -- arresting some Al-Qaeda militants but giving sway to local militants with ties to the ISI. Islamabad has consistently denied such allegations.

Nevertheless, in September, after Zardari was elected by lawmakers as Pakistan's new president, Islamabad began to make changes to the ISI -- eventually closing the section tasked with domestic spying on Pakistani politicians.

Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says it is difficult to determine whether that move was directly linked to the fight against terrorism or domestic politics. But Markey says other changes to the ISI during 2008 certainly reflect increased U.S. pressure for reforms.
Bhutto's assassination prompted reforms in Pakistan's intelligence agencies

"Other moves of late -- the replacement of the ISI chief and the second tier of leadership within the ISI -- do appear to be more directly related to a desire to root out sympathizers for the Taliban and other extremists that have long been a part of the ISI," Markey says.

"There is obviously some very significant changes being made within the ISI. Whether they are going to achieve the desired goal, and how quickly -- I'd say that is still up in the air."

Lessons From The Iraqi Surge

Senior officials at the Pentagon have told RFE/RL they are now studying how lessons from successful "surge" operations in Iraq during 2007 might be applied to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Eric Edelman, the Bush administration's undersecretary of defense for policy, says that a key to the success of the surge in Iraq was the way the U.S. military worked together with Sunni tribal leaders in Al-Anbar Governorate against Al-Qaeda militants.

"While some of the elements of tribal engagement that were used in Iraq -- like the Anbar Sheiks and the Sons of Iraq -- may be relevant to Afghanistan, it will have to be applied with some care," Edelman says. "Tribal engagement and local accommodation certainly will be part of the solution. But we will have to figure out exactly how to apply it."

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, an expert on militancy in South and Central Asia, says December raids by Pakistani forces against militant camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir show that Islamabad is starting to respond to the allegations from India that the Mumbai attacks were carried out by militants trained on Pakistani soil.

"These groups that are operating openly on Pakistani soil have to be shut down and put away. The point is that many of these groups are deeply involved with Al-Qaeda. They are involved with the Pakistani Taliban [and] the Afghan Taliban. They are creating mayhem in India, in Iraq and around the world," Rashid says. "And these groups have had it very easy so far. They have to be put away. But also, at the same time, what is needed is a strategic rethink by [Pakistan's] military as to how it looks at national security."

CIA Director Michael Hayden said in November that Al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas had provided "sanctuary" that allowed the terrorist network to recover some of the capacity it lost when it was expelled from Afghanistan nearly seven years earlier by U.S.-led forces.

He said elements along Pakistan's side of the Afghan-Pakistan border have supported terrorist financing, recruiting, training, and plotting.

And even though Al-Qaeda has suffered serious setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hayden says it remains "a determined, adaptive enemy."

Hayden concludes that Al-Qaeda's base of operations on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan remains the single most important factor today in the group's resilience and its ability to threaten the West.

2008 In Review

2008 In Review

RFE/RL looks back at the stories that shaped 2008. More