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Pakistan remains a roadblock for U.S. in Central Asian affairs

The United States has the cooperation of Afghanistan, which used to harbor Al Qaeda, but has limited ability to maneuver in neighboring Pakistan, where the terrorist group is now based.

March 29, 2009|Greg Miller

WASHINGTON — President Obama's plan to create a unified U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan marks his effort to sever his administration's approach from the failures of the past.

But administration officials are struggling to identify a clear path around the problem that has undermined U.S. policy in those countries for much of the last seven years: The United States can operate freely in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda used to be based, but has limited ability to control what happens in neighboring Pakistan, which the terrorist network now calls home.

The policy unveiled Friday put the consequences of those constraints in sharp relief.

In Afghanistan, the United States is poised to send an additional 21,000 troops and to train thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers, while working directly with the government to bring corruption under control.

In Pakistan, however, the U.S. approach hinges on providing an extra $5 billion in aid over the next five years and leaning on Islamabad to take steps against the Islamic militants that it has so far been unwilling, or unable, to carry out.

Skepticism about Pakistan's ability to assert control in its tribal areas prompted even architects of the Obama plan to describe that component as the most difficult aspect of the strategy.

"Of all the dilemmas, problems and challenges we face, that's going to be the most daunting," said Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy overseeing U.S. efforts in the region.

"You could have a great government in Kabul," the Afghan capital, Holbrooke said Friday, but "if the current situation in western Pakistan continued, the instability of Afghanistan would continue."

In some ways, the rollout of the strategy last week marked the beginning of a concerted effort to increase pressure on Pakistan.

Obama described the country's border region as "the most dangerous place in the world," and warned that the United States' patience was wearing thin after Washington provided more than $12 billion in aid to Islamabad over seven years only to see Al Qaeda remain intact.

"After years of mixed results, we will not and cannot provide a blank check," Obama said. "Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out Al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken, one way or another, when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets."

The remark appeared to be one of the most pointed threats of U.S. unilateral military action in Pakistan since early in the Obama presidential campaign.

But administration officials labored to explain exactly how they expect to persuade Pakistan to take a different course.

Asked in a television interview what part of the new plan might make Pakistan go after insurgents more aggressively, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in the region, talked of building trust but listed no specifics.

"What we need to do is, again, partner together effectively, confident that we are going to be there for each other in the future," Petraeus said.

A central component of the Obama plan is legislation, introduced by Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), that would triple U.S. civilian aid to Pakistan.

The measure calls for that aid to be released only after the State Department has certified that Pakistan has made "concerted efforts" to prevent Al Qaeda and associated terrorist groups from operating in the country.

But U.S. officials and Pakistan experts noted that the United States has found it difficult to withhold aid from a country whose counter-terrorism cooperation it needs.

And it is unclear how Pakistan's performance might be measured when the nation's security services often seem to be working at cross-purposes. Over the last year, Pakistan's army has launched operations against militant strongholds while the nation's spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, has been accused of aiding Taliban groups.

Pakistan's activities "remain a mystery to folks here in Washington," said Alan Kronstadt, a Pakistan expert at the Congressional Research Service. "That makes it fairly difficult to find legislative language that would address this concern."

Even after the Obama administration's recent high-level discussions with Pakistan over the new strategy, U.S. intelligence officials said Islamabad continued to foster relationships with Islamic militant groups that it helped organize with U.S. support in the 1980s.

"After 9/11 they did a turnabout, but not 100% turnabout, and remain engaged with a number of these groups who also operate inside Pakistan," said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who was made available to discuss the issue by the Obama administration on condition that he not be identified.

For years, CIA officials and others have accused elements of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency of providing guidance and material support to certain Taliban groups, as well as tipping them off to possible U.S. strikes.

Asked to describe the scope of that problem and how often it has hurt U.S. efforts to strike militant targets, the official replied: "Too big. Too often."

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greg.miller@latimes.com

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