November 8, 2007
Pg. 1 For U.S., fight to stop Islamic extremists gets tougher, more complex
By Brian Winter, Paul Wiseman and Jim Michaels, USA Today
When a Boston television reporter gave then-candidate George W. Bush a pop quiz on foreign leaders in 1999, one of the names he missed was that of Pakistan's president.
Now, few people are more important to the Bush administration than Pervez Musharraf. His efforts to quell violent protests against his government this week have put a spotlight not only on the chaos within the nuclear-armed Islamic nation, but also on how fragile Pakistan's role has become in Bush's war on terrorism.
There are increasing questions about whether Musharraf is effectively keeping his vow to crack down on Islamic militants, which are using Pakistan as a base to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Add this week's political crisis, and Pakistan may have surpassed Iraq and Afghanistan as the most vulnerable front in Bush's anti-terror efforts.
"There's no way to win a war on terrorism without Pakistan's cooperation," says Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a Washington-based group that tracks Islamic terrorist organizations.
Pakistan's uncertain future symbolizes how, six years after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration is facing tough decisions on how to protect the USA from another assault by Islamic extremists. In recent days, much of the news from the three major fronts of the war on terrorism has not been good:
•Musharraf's decision to suspend constitutional rights in Pakistan and arrest thousands of dissidents has placed his future as president in doubt. Meanwhile, the Pentagon now believes the number of al-Qaeda fighters operating in Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan may have doubled over the past year to about 16,000.
•In Afghanistan, this has been the most violent year since the United States ousted the Taliban government in 2001. A bombing in a normally peaceful Afghan city killed 41 people Tuesday, including five parliament members, in the most deadly suicide attack since the war began.
•Despite a significant recent downturn in violence in Iraq, this has been the deadliest year of the war there for U.S. troops. Iraqi politicians have not forged deals on oil revenue-sharing and other issues Bush says are crucial for a lasting peace.
Bush said he spoke with Musharraf by telephone Wednesday and urged him to call elections soon. The White House has expressed frustration with Musharraf's recent actions, but his government — which has received more than $10 billion in U.S. aid since 2001 — still might be more cooperative on U.S. security issues than any potential replacement.
If Musharraf were ousted by a coup or popular revolt, Pakistan could turn to a leader such as former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who is more sympathetic to Islamic militants. Polls indicate Sharif is Pakistan's most popular politician.
Another potential replacement would be Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who generally is sympathetic to U.S. policy. However, Bhutto's two previous governments collapsed amid corruption scandals.
Meanwhile, some foreign policy specialists worry Musharraf is becoming an example of how the U.S. government's backing of undemocratic leaders ultimately can be dangerous to U.S. interests.
In the long run, Musharraf's actions may embolden militants to lash out at the United States for supporting a repressive and unpopular leader, says Christian Kaunert, who studies terrorism at the University of Salford in Manchester, England.
"It seems more and more that (Musharraf's) rhetoric on terrorism is being used as an excuse to abolish democracy, while he's not being terribly effective on the war on terror himself," Kaunert says.
Such heavy-handed tactics also threaten to generate anti-American sentiment among those in Pakistan's middle class and make them more prone to elect a leader hostile to Washington if a civilian-led democracy returns. Most of the protesters against Musharraf have been lawyers and human rights activists, rather than tribal militants.
"Seeing troops inside the Supreme Court is almost an embarrassment to most Pakistanis," says Ijaz Shafi Gilani of the polling group Gallup Pakistan. "The underlying atmosphere becomes more supportive of militancy when the president himself breaks the law."
Pakistan — along with Saudi Arabia and Iraq — has one of the world's biggest concentrations of Islamic jihadists, Emerson says. The threat they pose to the West is clear.
Several suspects in recent terror attacks in Britain and Europe were trained in Pakistan. The anarchic border region, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding, is used as a shelter by al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who have staged a bold offensive this year against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Seth Jones, a counterinsurgency specialist at the RAND Corp. think tank, says NATO officials have told him the Taliban controls 20% of Afghanistan. The United Nations mission in Afghanistan counted 77 suicide attacks in the first half of 2007, a pace that would top the 2006 total of 123.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, says the increased fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan is part of a single struggle against ethnic Pashtun Taliban militants who live on both sides of a border they see as irrelevant.
"You can't win in Afghanistan if you can't win in Pakistan," he says.
The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate reported in July that al-Qaeda had rebuilt a haven in the border area. Militants have been able to regroup there since Pakistan's government cut a deal last year to leave the tribes alone in return for promises they would stop violent attacks.
Pakistan's "peace treaty with the tribal regions turned out to be a sham," says James Jones, a retired Marine Corps general who until last December was NATO's top military commander. "It turned out to be a failure."
Pakistan has sent about 80,000 troops to the tribal areas. They often have been reluctant to crack down on their countrymen, says Rifaat Hussain, a Pakistani military analyst and executive director of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Sri Lanka.
Pakistan's security and intelligence forces appear to have been infiltrated by officers linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Emerson says. "That has never been cleaned up," he says. "It has been institutionally a problem."
Bruce Hoffman, who teaches terrorism-related courses at Georgetown University, says Musharraf's "trump card" in resolving his political crisis may be to allow the U.S. military to operate in the territories if Washington agrees to tone down pressure for democracy in Pakistan.
Some analysts say that, as with other arenas in the war on terrorism, sending U.S. troops into Pakistan would destabilize the country even further.
A long-term U.S. military presence in Pakistan probably would lead to uprisings in the tribal region, boost recruitment for militant causes across the country and create "serious blowback throughout the Muslim world," according to a recent report by the CSIS.
"To do the job, we've got to go in with maximum force, not just (special) operations," says Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst specializing in al-Qaeda. "We don't have the troops. And we'd make (Musharraf's) position impossible."
The 9/11 Commission cited Pakistan's educational system as a main concern in the war on terrorism and said some of the nation's 12,000 madrassas
, or religious schools, "have been used as incubators for violent extremism."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on Pakistan in September 2006 to do more to prevent extremists and terrorists from using the schools as a haven.
Even the area's geography is hostile to outsiders. Militants are able to take shelter in mountain caves.
"It's a bad place for foreigners and always has been," Scheuer says. "Your popularity begins to go down the day you arrive, and it keeps on going down until you're out of there."
Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani author of Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia,
says Musharraf's diminishing political support may already be driving him to act against U.S. interests. Rashid notes that a day after Musharraf declared a state of emergency, the military released 25 pro-Taliban militants in exchange for 213 captured troops.
Musharraf's crackdown may cost him the support of his most loyal and important constituency: Pakistan's army, Rashid says.
"This is the beginning of the end," he says.
Teresita Schaffer, a former diplomat who worked in Pakistan during the 1970s, says Washington might reach out to other Pakistani political and military leaders who could better cope with the militant threat. "The big question they're going to be facing is, do they still consider Musharraf an essential part of Pakistan's future, or do they decide he's part of the problem?" Schaffer says.
"As distasteful as a dictatorship is to our fundamental values, there's no doubt that (Musharraf) as an authoritarian has been essentially pro-Western and has been able to engineer arrests, give U.S. access to intelligence and play in essence a positive role," Emerson says.
Whatever the outcome, Pakistan will be crucial not only to the rest of Bush's presidency, but to that of his successor.
"Pakistan is vital to American national security, to regional security, and to U.S. objectives throughout the Muslim world," the CSIS report says. "There is no walking away."