The War for Pakistan

By Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal - May 6, 2009

The presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan meet at the White House today, ostensibly to discuss the new Afghan offensive. But fast becoming the more urgent issue is the battle for control of nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The U.S. can't defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda without Pakistan's help, but the Islamic radicals are making their own play to destabilize that pivotal Muslim nation. The Taliban's recent push to within 60 miles of the capital of Islamabad seemed to happen overnight. But the threat was years in the making -- mostly of Pakistan's own making. The U.S. task is to help Pakistan's civilian leaders undo policies and mindsets deeply implanted in the military and society and redirect them toward defeating the Islamists.

Aides to President Asif Ali Zardari say the latest crisis could be a political turning point. The country's lawless northwest frontier has always been a world apart for most Pakistanis, who have never elected Islamists. But the Taliban's recent advance has alarmed a complacent public. Clashes also broke out this week in Swat Valley, possibly ending a dubious Islamist-government February accord that set the stage for the Taliban advance. Thousands of civilians are fleeing the tribal regions.

The Zardari government presents itself as a strong U.S. partner in the war against terrorism, and in some ways it is better than the protean friendship of Pervez Musharraf, who left office last year. With Mr. Zardari's approval, the U.S. has boosted its drone attacks on terrorist sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Islamabad helps select and sign off on the targets, though officials publicly deny any knowledge for fear of domestic backlash.

Mr. Zardari may be sincere about taking on the terrorists who murdered his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in late 2007. But he isn't the most powerful man in Pakistan. He runs a weak government and has spent too many of the past nine months pursuing the Bhutto family's feud with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

As ever, the decisive power belongs to the military, whose ambivalence, duplicity and outright support for the militants over the past three decades have brought us to this pass. The Islamists in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan were groomed as "strategic assets" and are still considered that in some barracks. General Ashfaq Kayani, the military head, pushed for and has defended the ill-fated cease-fire in Swat.

The military's recent strikes against the Taliban, though welcome, don't necessarily signal a policy shift. Mr. Musharraf would also attack the insurgents on occasion, but then he'd pull out and the militancy spread. That pattern will continue until the Pakistani military conducts a proper counterinsurgency. Instead, Pakistan's military still sees India as the greatest threat to national security, devoting its best troops to its eastern border.

A Pakistani official tells us the military won't shift more resources westward without security reassurances from India. In fact, the real military danger from India will come if New Delhi believes Pakistan can't control or defeat its own militants. By waging a proper fight against the Taliban, General Kayani would also keep Pakistan more secure on the eastern front.

America, which learned about counterinsurgency in Iraq, can help with training and better equipment. But the Pakistanis want U.S. military trainers to teach their officers in the U.S. or a third country. We also hear the military is reluctant to take up U.S. offers to fix Pakistan's idle attack helicopters and focus on the hardware suited for a civil war against a lightly armed enemy. Instead, says a U.S. Defense official, "we always hear things like, 'F-16s are an ideal counterinsurgency tool.'"

But fickle American policy is also at fault. The U.S. military lost touch with a generation of Pakistani officers, after the Pressler amendment blocked military aid and exchanges in the 1990s amid concerns about its nuclear program. Even now, Congress is threatening to gum up requests for equipment and other aid with political restrictions that will inspire resentment in Pakistan and make it harder to win the military's trust. Congress would do better to fast-track the $400 million in support for Pakistan's military this year, plus another $7.5 billion authorization for aid over the next five years.

President Obama has publicly advertised his unhappiness with Pakistan's government and military, and perhaps that prodding has its place. But he is likely to get more cooperation if he makes clear that the U.S. is committed to the region's security for the long run. The greatest danger is that Pakistan's weak institutions and uncertain leaders lose their will to defeat the Islamists. That is how the Shah of Iran fell in 1979. We don't want a repeat in Islamabad.


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