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The Pakistan predicament

January 17, 2006

PAKISTANI OFFICIALS CLAIM last week's U.S. bombing of a western village killed not the intended target, No. 2 Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, but at least 17 others, including women and children. If so, relatives of the dead deserve an apology and reparations; Washington also needs to express regret to President Pervez Musharraf's government.

The message can be delivered this week when Pakistan's prime minister visits the U.S. But at the same time, the prime minister should be reminded that if Islamabad actually tried to find Zawahiri and his boss, Osama bin Laden, instead of just pretending to do so, such attacks would not be repeated.

More than four years after Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks, Pakistan continues to play a dangerous game. The government does as little as possible to hunt Al Qaeda operatives, lest their Pakistani supporters become even more upset with Musharraf. Yet Islamabad continually assures Washington that it's in vigorous pursuit, in order to keep the foreign aid flowing.

A quarter of a century ago, the U.S. funded and armed Islamic extremists in Pakistan to cross the border and fight the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan; when the Soviets left, the U.S. lost interest in the region. Pakistan supported the Taliban after it took over Afghanistan and gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda. After 9/11, Musharraf claimed to have reversed course and threw in his lot with the U.S.

Washington has rewarded Pakistan with a five-year, $3-billion aid package. Musharraf promised to close the madrasas -- fundamentalist schools that foment anti-Americanism -- but progress has been slow. And the problem doesn't just lie with the private madrasas. The nation's public schools use textbooks promoting violent battles against infidels. The province where Friday's apparently botched attempt to kill Zawahiri occurred now has a pro-Taliban government, making it harder for Islamabad to search for Al Qaeda. But difficulty is not impossibility.

Pakistan claims to have captured more than 700 suspected Al Qaeda operatives in recent years. One notable prisoner was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, planner of the 9/11 attacks. But the hunt for terrorists clearly represents a low priority.

The commendable U.S. response to last year's earthquake in Pakistan's northern region, including U.S. troops, civilian aid agencies and funds, did much to improve the U.S. image in the country. If last week's bombing turns out to be based on faulty information, the deaths will further inflame anti-American feeling. More important, they would be a deeply regrettable loss of innocent life. It's true that in war "stuff happens," but that does not lessen the tragedy when women and children are killed accidentally.

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