Inter Press Service
While the foreign policy debate here has focused primarily on Afghanistan and Iran over the past two weeks, official Washington has been moving to tighten ties with a key neighbour of both countries, Pakistan.
Late last week, Congress finally cleared legislation that would triple the current level of U.S. non-military aid to Islamabad over the next five years, to an annual rate of 1.5 billion dollars. Only a fraction of the 11 billion dollars provided to Pakistan under the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush from 2001 was devoted to non-military assistance. (For more on U.S. aid to Pakistan, see Najum Mushtaq, “Whither Af-Pak?” Right Web, April 16, 2009.)
While the additional assistance will likely help bolster Washington’s badly damaged image among the general public in Pakistan, the new bill omitted a key provision that would have granted generous trade preferences for exports from the country’s regions where both Taliban insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have gained most of their recruits.
Passage of the bill, which President Barack Obama is expected to sign this week, comes amid reports that the Pakistani Army is preparing to launch a major offensive – long encouraged by Washington – against the Pakistani Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s main stronghold in South Waziristan.
The pending campaign, which follows the Army’s conquests of Bajaur and Mohmand agencies in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is designed to take advantage of the Aug. 5 killing – apparently by a U.S. drone strike – of the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and reported infighting among Taliban leaders that followed it.
While Washington had hoped that the Pakistani military would have moved earlier into South Waziristan, it has been encouraged by the Army’s recent performance in taking on the Taliban in North Waziristan and the NWFP.
“If South Waziristan is indeed next, that would be a significant development,” said Bruce Riedel, a South Asia specialist and former senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst who chaired the White House’s review on Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) after Obama came to office.
“More pressure is being put on al Qaeda’s safe haven [in Waziristan] today than at any time since 2003 and 2004,” he told an audience at the Brookings Institution, where he serves as a senior fellow, Monday.
He credited both the Pakistani Army’s recent aggressiveness against the Taliban and Washington’s increasingly effective use of drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban leaders on Pakistani territory.
At the same time, he cautioned, neither al Qaeda, which is closely allied with the Taliban, nor the Taliban itself should be considered any less dangerous.
Indeed, that assessment was echoed back in Pakistan itself Monday when a suicide bomber dressed as a member of the paramilitary Frontiers Corps struck the lobby of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) headquarters in Islamabad, killing at least five aid workers.
The WFP has been the main provider of relief supplies to some two million people who fled the Swat Valley as the army’s counterinsurgency campaign got underway there earlier this summer.
The attack followed two suicide car bombings that killed at least 16 people in northwest Pakistan, including the NWFP’s capital, Peshawar, last week in what the Taliban claimed was retaliation for Mehsud’s killing.
It also followed an interview with five Pakistani reporters Sunday with Mehsud’s apparent successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, and other key Pakistani Taliban leaders in the town of Sararogha in South Waziristan that embarrassed Pakistani and some U.S. intelligence officials who had claimed that Hikimullah had been killed in factional fighting that broke out after Baitullah’s death.
“We are fully prepared for that operation,” Hakimullah told reporters in reference to the Army’s pending attack on Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan, “and we will give full proof of those preparations once the offensive is launched.”
While Hakimullah’s survival and confidence likely disappointed officials here, Washington is still much more hopeful about the direction of events in Pakistan than last winter when the Taliban’s takeover of Bajaur put it within 100 kms of Islamabad itself. Some independent experts had warned at the time that the nuclear-armed Pakistani state, led by an increasingly unpopular President Asif Zardari, could collapse under the pressure.
The Obama administration now believes that the Pakistani Taliban had effectively over-reached and that Pakistan’s elite, including the Army, has come to see it and its al Qaeda ally as a much greater threat to the country than ever before.
This perception, in turn, has led to significantly greater military and intelligence cooperation by the Army with the U.S., as demonstrated by the increased effectiveness of dozens of U.S. drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban targets on Pakistani soil so far this year.
Such cooperation remains deeply unpopular within Pakistan, according to recent public opinion polls. Indeed, a survey of nearly 5,000 Pakistanis conducted at the end of July and early August and released late last week by the International Republican Institute (IRI) found that 80 percent of respondents oppose cooperation with the U.S. “war on terror”, up from 61 percent as recently as last March. A slightly smaller percentage opposes U.S. drone attacks.
The same polls, however, have shown a strong shift against the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well. Nearly nine out of 10 respondents in the IRI poll said they considered the two groups a “serious problem” in Pakistan, up from just over 50 percent one year ago. Seventy percent said they supported the army’s counterinsurgency efforts, up from less than 30 percent two years ago.
It is in that context that Washington hopes to improve its own standing among the Pakistani public, in part by substantially increasing non-military aid and doing more to ensure that its intended beneficiaries receive it. The State Department last week announced that it intended to sharply reduce its reliance for the delivery of aid to Pakistan on private contractors, which have been accused of waste and corruption.
Congress put some conditions on the new assistance package. Under one provision, for example, half of the annual disbursement would be withheld until the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, currently Amb. Richard Holbrooke, certified that Islamabad was making “reasonable progress” in carrying out the main purposes of the aid. These include democratic reform, reducing corruption, and improving health care and public education, especially for women and girls.
Disbursement of military aid, which is also expected to increase as part of Washington’s “AfPak” strategy, is also dependent on presidential certification that the Army is cooperating with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The latter is likely to prove problematic, according to Riedel and other experts who say that, while the Army clearly sees the Pakistani Taliban as a major threat, its position on Afghanistan’s Taliban, whose main leadership is widely believed to be based in Pakistan’s Balochistan, is far more ambiguous.
Pakistan’s military was the Afghan Taliban’s main sponsor in its rise to power in the 1990s and has long been seen as a strategic asset against India, a major backer of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).