Pakistani PM May Be Pincushion for U.S. Frustration

When Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani begins his first official visit here at the White House Monday, the welcome is likely to be a little warmer than he might wish.

Pakistan, which is beset by both a thriving Taliban insurgency and its worst inflation in some 30 years, has become a serious source of frustration and anxiety to top U.S. policymakers who have become increasingly direct in blaming Islamabad for the deteriorating situation in neighboring Afghanistan.

"No question … that some extremists are coming out of parts of Pakistan into Afghanistan," Gilani’s White House host, President George W. Bush, told reporters earlier this month after Afghan President Hamid Karzai charged that Islamabad’s intelligence agency was aiding the insurgency.

"That’s troubling to us, troubling to Afghanistan, and it should be troubling to Pakistan," he noted, adding that Washington would investigate Karzai’s allegations.

Top U.S. military officials, including both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, and the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, have also publicly expressed growing frustration with Pakistan. According to a London Times report, Mullen reportedly warned privately during a visit to Islamabad earlier this month that Washington would take unilateral military action if Pakistan did not move more aggressively to stanch the flow of fighters across the border into Afghanistan.

Nor is it just the incumbent policymakers who are complaining. Both major presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have echoed Bush’s complaints as concern about Afghanistan has gained prominence in the election campaign.

In a major policy address on the eve of his current trip to Afghanistan and other overseas destinations, Obama took an even more hawkish position than those of both the administration and McCain, reiterating a controversial threat he first made early this year that Washington would not "tolerate a terrorist sanctuary" inside Pakistan.

"We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets if we have them in our sights," he declared, suggesting that such targets might include indigenous Pakistani Taliban leaders, such as Baitullah Mehsud, as well as al Qaeda chiefs who are believed to be sheltered by their Taliban hosts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Such threats and complaints have put Gilani in an extremely difficult position.

His government, which was already weakened by the withdrawal of former President Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) from the ruling coalition two months ago, now faces a growing economic crisis due to skyrocketing food and fuel prices and shortages in water and electricity that have spurred protests and even outbreaks of violence in some of Pakistan’s biggest urban areas.

Despite a brief offensive late last month by the paramilitary Frontiers Corps and police, the Pakistani Taliban forces appear to have tightened their siege of Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). This growing influence and control of the Pakistani Taliban and its allies both within FATA and beyond has contributed to the sense here that the new government has no strategy for dealing with the insurgency.

"The Taliban is moving forward in a very calculated way," Pervez Hoodbhoy, a prominent Pakistani commentator, told an audience at the Middle East Institute (MEI) here earlier this month.

He warned that the insurgency’s ambitions to replace secular and tribal law with Sharia, or Islamic law, extended far beyond the Pashtun-dominated regions of the country. Although much of Pakistan’s "establishment is in denial", he said the Taliban’s latest moves should be seen as a "stepping stone to the rest of Pakistan".

Even if his government were inclined to take on the Taliban, however, it is not clear that Gilani could get the support or cooperation of the powerful Pakistani military which, under Gen. Ashfaz Kayani as with his predecessors, has reportedly shown little interest in pursuing the kind of aggressive counter-insurgency strategy that Washington believes is necessary.

U.S. officials have grown increasingly disenchanted with Kayani, whose replacement of President Pervez Musharraf last fall had fueled hopes that he could persuade the army that it faced a greater threat from the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies than from India.

But, to date, Kayani has followed in Musharraf’s footsteps by quietly negotiating ceasefires with the militants while building up the military’s conventional forces.

"It has no intention of fighting a U.S. proxy war in the tribal territories," according to ret. Brigadier F.B. Ali. "It also knows that the U.S. will continue to pay it large subsidies to ensure the safeguarding of he U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan (and the country’s nuclear weapons)."

Indeed, Washington’s willingness to continue paying such subsidies was very much in evidence this week when the New York Times reported that the Bush administration wanted to use 227 million dollars of a 300-million-dollar military aid package approved by Congress this year to help the Pakistani military buy equipment, such as helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft, useful for counter-insurgency, to upgrade some of its F-16 fighter jets instead.

While the State Department said the F-16s could be used to combat terrorism, some analysts dismissed that notion, suggesting that, by approving such a shift, Washington was effectively undermining its efforts to persuade the military that counter-insurgency should be its top priority.

For his part, Gilani is expected to appeal for more economic assistance, which his government has long argued is critical to defeating or containing the insurgents in any event. Washington has provided some 10 billion dollars in aid to Pakistan since 2002, but almost all of it has been military assistance.

On the aid issue, he will receive a particularly a favorable reception from Democrats, including Obama, who recently endorsed a pending proposal in Congress to triple non-military aid for Pakistan to 1.5 billion dollars a year, much of it targeted at FATA. The administration has also conceded the case for more assistance but has not yet made a specific proposal.

On the Taliban, Gilani will plead, above all, for patience and no doubt warn against any unilateral military action by the U.S. for which there is a growing clamors here, particularly in the aftermath of the Taliban attack earlier this month close to the border in Afghanistan in which nine U.S. soldiers were killed.

"Bombing is going to make things worse," Hoodbhoy told the Institute. "Don’t even think of it. … For every innocent civilian killed, you will create 100 Taliban. It would be a catastrophe for the rest of Pakistan."

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.