At Odds on North Waziristan

At Odds on North Waziristan

By David Ignatius - December 16, 2010

ISLAMABAD -- A military official in the U.S. Embassy here points to a map of Pakistan. "This is the problem we should be dealing with," he says, drawing a big circle around the entire country. Instead, he continues, now drawing a little circle around the frontier area known as North Waziristan, "we're in danger of focusing on this."

The military official says he worries that the Washington debate about Pakistan is becoming "hyper-focused" on a demand that the Pakistani army attack North Waziristan to stop Taliban insurgents from crossing into Afghanistan -- a request he says the Pakistanis are incapable of meeting now because their forces are "stretched too thin."

Almost the same words are used by an official of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan's spy agency, as he tells me why a new offensive isn't going to happen soon, no matter what Washington wants. The Pakistani army has been fighting hard in the tribal areas for nearly two years, he says, and "we are battle weary."

"North Waziristan doesn't present that much of a threat to us," the ISI official explained Tuesday. "If we were to attack it now, it would increase the threat to the rest of the country. The tribal areas would be inflamed and the situation would become untenable."

The harder Washington pushes for a crackdown, the more Islamabad seems to resist. And the explanation is simple. The two countries' interests differ on this one: America, with its forces exposed in Afghanistan, wants action now. Pakistan, facing a nationwide campaign of terrorism, wants to concentrate on its internal threat. Politicians in each country accuse the other nation of being duplicitous and untrustworthy, which only makes the situation worse.

"We have a nasty tendency of assuming that what we care about is what the Pakistanis care about," says the U.S. military official. He argues that the problem in Pakistan isn't that it has a secret agenda but a "bloodied army."

The ISI official raises the touchy issue of national pride. "By appearing as America's mercenaries, our army's acceptance level goes down."

The tug of war over the safe havens is center stage this week. President Obama's latest review of the Afghan War concludes that "some important progress" has been made but that there is an "ongoing challenge and threat of safe havens in Pakistan," according to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

A new pair of national intelligence estimates take a bleaker view, arguing that the war has "a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border," The New York Times reported.

Despite the growing Pakistanophobia in Washington, senior U.S. officials here say the Pakistanis are moving in the right direction, though maddeningly slow. One notes that the Pakistanis, despite their perennial jitters about India, now have 140,000 troops in the northwest border area, more than the U.S. has in Afghanistan. "They are extended at this point as far as they can be," he says.

The U.S. military official, standing at his map, says Washington should realize that the Pakistanis "are unable to conduct significant new operations without additional troops. That's not a criticism, it's a reality." This official notes that the Pakistani military has suffered 1,500 to 2,000 dead fighting the extremists and three to four times that many wounded, with civilian casualties in the tens of thousands. If America experienced this level of casualties, he says, "we would probably call it a second American Civil War."

Concern about the safe havens is stronger in Washington these days than among U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. John Campbell, who leads NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan, said Wednesday at Bagram air base that closing the border "may not matter" as much as many fear because coalition forces are "pushing out" toward Pakistan. "Even if the Pakistanis were to do a huge operation, they'll never shut this off," he cautioned.

The U.S. has a tough-enough fight in Afghanistan as it is. One sure way to make it worse would be to escalate the quarrel with Pakistan to the crisis level, or, out of frustration, to send U.S. troops into the tribal areas. Better in this case to be patient, and to use Predator drones and other intelligence assets to attack the insurgents' sanctuaries. If Washington officials aren't careful, they're going to shoot themselves in the foot in their indignation about Pakistan.

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CORRECTION: In a column from Baghdad this week, I referred to soldiers leaving Iraq next week from the 1st Infantry Division. That should have been 1st Armored Division.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius

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