US - Pakistan relations under series strain

US presses Pakistan for Taliban crackdown
By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington and Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad
Financial Times Jan 17, 2007

The US is stepping up pressure on Islamabad to clamp down on Taliban havens inside Pakistan as US and Nato forces prepare for a tough spring campaign in Afghanistan by the Islamic fundamentalists.

Robert Gates, the new US defence secretary, this week laid down clear markers that it wanted General Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan, to crack down on Taliban militants in Pakistan.

"There are more attacks coming across the border, there are al-Qaeda networks operating on the Pakistan side of the border, and these are issues that we clearly will have to pursue with the Pakistani government," Mr Gates said in Kabul.

Relations between Washington and Islamabad improved significantly in the wake of the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the US after Gen Musharraf pledged full co-operation in defeating extremism. Washington has since been careful to calibrate its public criticism of Islamabad because of the co-operation Pakistani forces have provided the US military and CIA in hunting down al-Qaeda operatives in the ungoverned border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But as the pace of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan picked up over the past year – and with a tough spring offensive expected – US commanders are frustrated that Pakistan is not doing more to help.

John Negroponte, the US intelligence chief, told Congress last week in harsher than normal language that while Pakistan was a partner in the "war on terror" it was also a "major source of Islamic extremism".

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, says Washington wavers between complimenting the regime of Gen Musharraf and unleashing criticism. "Its a very difficult balancing act," he says. "

Pakistani analysts say that the US policy towards the country is inherently flawed, driven mainly by continuing support for a controversial military-led regime while failing to press harder for a return to full democracy, more than six years after a bloodless coup brought Gen Musharraf to power.

Lisa Curtis, a former CIA analyst now at the Heritage Foundation, says the increased rhetoric from Washington is partly aimed at eliminating doubts among some members of the Pakistani government and armed forces that the US is committed to the operations in Afghanistan.

"I think there is probably a serious debate within the Pakistani security establishment on this issue and that is why we need to be clear on what the US commitment and goals are in the region so that this debate can stop and Pakistanis can put their full force behind reining in the Taliban."

One senior American official said part of the problem was that Pakistan's co-operation has been "episodic". Pakistan has helped the US capture members of al-Qaeda, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. But the official says Islamabad's reluctance to crack down on the Taliban is partly responsible for the fact that the US has only killed or captured five or six Taliban operatives on its top 100 list.

Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the US is particularly concerned that Islamabad has allowed the northern tribal area of Waziristan to become a de facto independent province where the Taliban can operate freely.

The senior US official said the US was frustrated with tribal deals struck under which Islamabad agreed to withdraw Pakistani troops from the ungoverned areas in return for tribal leaders agreeing to stop co-operating with al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives. But the official said the deal ended up helping the Taliban become more dominant in the tribal areas.

"Pakistanis had options but chose the easy way out," says Mr Luttwak. "They thought they would get away with it. They are not getting away with it because the Americans are reacting. I think they will bite the bullet."

Stephen Cohen, an expert on Pakistan at the Brookings Institution, says Mr Musharraf may have over-estimated the strength of the US-Pakistan relationship in deciding not to crack down on the Taliban.

"[The Pakistanis] are aware that the Pakistan-US relationship broke once before over the nuclear programme and perhaps it might break again over Pakistan's support for the Taliban," says Mr Cohen. "But their calculation is that they have support at the top of the US government so don't need to worry much about what the Afghans and Indians are saying."

While American officials are stepping up pressure on Islamabad, Democrats in Congress are likely to urge Mr Bush to tackle Pakistani support for the Taliban. One piece of legislation before Congress would tie US aid to Pakistan to a presidential certification that Pakistan was co-operating in dealing with the Taliban.

If passed, the legislation could have a sobering effort on Islamabad. Alan Kronstadt, a South Asia expert at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, estimates that the Pentagon is providing Pakistan with about $80m (€62m, £41m) a month – 25 per cent of the Pakistani military expenditures – for counter-terrorism operations.

"The Americans think they have struck a great bargain with having Musharraf support," says Ghazi Salahuddin, a political columnist for The News, Pakistan's large circulation English newspaper. "The reality is, they have struck what appears to be a very poor bargain."

© The Financial Times Ltd 2007. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved

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