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Pakistan's Muddled War

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
February 5, 2009

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Militancy in Pakistan has been spreading inward from the lawless tribal region along the Afghan border. The Pakistani Taliban has seized large swaths of territory (CSMonitor) in North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Militants have also increasingly mounted attacks in Peshawar, the provincial capital, as well as on trucks transiting the city to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani says Pakistan remains committed to fighting terrorism (FT) using dialogue, development, and deterrence. Yet experts say after nearly ten months of effort, the government has done little to inspire confidence. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey told CFR.org, "intellectually, both the civilian government and the military are committed to their plan, but in implementation they are falling short."

Pakistani security shortcomings include inadequate training and equipment, as well as a lack of mobility to fight insurgents in difficult terrain. Worries remain about the army's willingness to take on militants, a problem described (PDF) by Hassan Abbas, a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. The government's lack of control over the military and the intelligence service, the ISI, compounds problems. South Asia expert Bruce Riedel told CFR.org that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari "has only notional control over the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence services, which remain fixated on their eternal enemy, India, and which believe that India wants to create a client state in Afghanistan in order to encircle Pakistan." Of all the tasks the United States faces, persuading the Pakistani army to dismantle its militias "is the hardest," writes Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria and many other regional experts say pacifying and stabilizing Pakistan are critical to victory in the war in Afghanistan.

Interactive Map: Pakistan's Troubled Tribal BeltWashington has signaled deep concerns about mushrooming Pakistan-Afghan problems, as some experts warn of the prospect of a failed Pakistani state. The Obama administration appointed Richard Holbrooke as special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan with the mandate to coordinate U.S. strategic goals in the region. Holbrooke was due to make his first official trip to the region in early February to help contribute to the broad policy reassessment under way. Some news reports say the Pentagon's latest review (CBS) of the Afghan strategy recommends the United States focus on regional stability and eliminating Taliban and al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan, rather than on achieving lasting democracy in Afghanistan.

However, Democrats in Congress, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, have pushed for greater engagement with Pakistan that focuses on development. The Enhanced Participation with Pakistan Act of 2008, if passed, would triple U.S. nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, granting $7.5 billion over five years in assistance for development projects. In a recent CFR meeting, Markey said Washington should focus on shoring up Pakistan's political structure and its development, with less emphasis on military considerations.

Any diminished U.S. military ties would occur against a backdrop of foundering government efforts to clear areas dominated by militants. Pakistan's strategy is becoming greatly unpopular as military operations using helicopter gunships, heavy weapons, and artillery are displacing  thousands (BBC). And so far, they have failed to keep the Taliban out. Military analyst Shuja Nawaz told CFR.org the army does not have the numbers to hold onto contested areas and has to repeat clearing operations.

While Pakistan's inability to rein in militants poses a threat to NATO and U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan, U.S. actions add to the Pakistani government's woes, say experts. In a recent interview with CNN, Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani called on the United States to stop air strikes in the tribal region. Washington, since early last year, has been using unmanned drone aircraft to take out suspected terrorists. Gilani said the airstrikes were "counter-productive" and helped in uniting the tribal people with the militants. Many in Pakistan also see the United States as a fickle partner intent on short-term gains in the region. As this interactive timeline notes, the two countries share a tumultous relationship marked by periods of estrangement and occasionally harsh sanctions.

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