A central pillar of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan – enlisting Pakistan to eliminate extremist havens on its side of the border – is being tested so severely it calls into question the viability of the entire plan.
When President Obama announced on March 27 his approach to turning around the war in Afghanistan, he said stronger action by neighboring Pakistan against Taliban sanctuaries on its soil was “indispensable.” He called the insurgent-infested border area “the most dangerous place in the world.”
Since then, extremists have not only held their own on the border but have made inroads toward Pakistan’s capital.
The extremists, including Pakistani elements of the Taliban, are not a homogenous force. Some elements are focused more on infiltrating Afghanistan to contest control of that country, while others are oriented toward destabilizing Pakistan.
But in either case the trends are growing more worrisome for an Obama administration that has decided the Afghan problem cannot be fixed without progress in Pakistan.
Reports of a pullback Friday from the militants’ latest advances toward Islamabad were greeted with measured relief in Washington, but there remains a worry that the Pakistani government is failing to deal forcefully with Islamist fighters slowly advancing toward the heart of the nuclear-armed country.
Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said developments in Pakistan have caused “deep anxiety” among administration officials – “and a worry about the viability, frankly, of any Afghan strategy, not just this one.”
There seem to be few other options for the U.S. in Pakistan. It has used periodic missile attacks from Predator drone aircraft to strike extremist leadership targets, but more direct military action would seem unlikely. Obama has pledged to provide more financial and other nonmilitary support, while warning Islamabad that U.S. patience is limited.
Obama made the calculation that Pakistan’s sovereignty must be respected and therefore U.S. ground forces would not be used inside Pakistan against the extremists, including elements of the al-Qaida network whose leaders are believed to be operating on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan.
He said Pakistan, with U.S. help, must show its commitment to making progress against the extremists.
Since Obama laid out that strategy, Pakistan arguably has regressed, endangering one pillar of the U.S. plan. The other pillars are a U.S. military and civilian buildup in Afghanistan and a redoubling of U.S. and allied efforts to train an Afghan security force capable of handling the insurgency on its own. Obama also committed to pursuing a regional diplomatic effort, including with Iran, to help Afghanistan.
David W. Barno, a former top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says extremists threaten to upend the very existence of Pakistan.
“Events in Pakistan are spiraling out of control,” Barno told Congress on Thursday, “and our options in reversing the downward acceleration are limited at best.”
U.S. officials have sought, with limited success, to nudge the Pakistani government toward confronting the extremists. The frustration was evident in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s assertion to Congress on Wednesday that the Pakistanis are “basically abdicating” to the extremists.
At least as cutting were comments Friday in Afghanistan by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I’m increasingly both concerned and frustrated at the progression of the danger,” he said in an NBC News interview one day after meeting with Pakistani officials in Islamabad.
Aside from its link to instability in Afghanistan, Pakistan is important to the United States and the rest of the world for another reason: It has nuclear weapons. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that the Pakistanis have enough fissile material for between 55 and 90 nuclear weapons.
The potential loss of control of those weapons is near the top of the list of concerns for Gen. David Petraeus, the Central Command chief whose area of responsibility includes Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Pakistani state failure would give transnational terrorist groups and other extremist organizations an opportunity to acquire nuclear weapons and a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks,” he told the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense Wednesday.
Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a policy paper this month that some banned extremist groups retain significant influence within Pakistani state institutions and enjoy public sympathy.
“If present trends persist, the next generation of the world’s most sophisticated terrorists will be born, indoctrinated, and trained in a nuclear-armed Pakistan,” he wrote.
Robert Burns has covered national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.