Message to Musharraf

By Jim Hoagland (THE WHASINGTON POST, 22/01/06):

Death to America. Oh, wait. Thank you, America. Love you, big guy. No, hold on. Where’s that “Death to America” banner? What have they done for us lately?

Pakistani mobs are back in the streets denouncing American military strikes aimed at terrorists sheltering in Pakistan. The carefully staged fury of those mobs eclipses the public opinion polls of a few weeks ago reporting significant gratitude from Pakistanis for U.S. military help after a catastrophic earthquake.

Easy come, easy go? Not exactly. The suffering villagers expressing gratitude have not suddenly morphed into the well-fed, bearded zealots marching in Peshawar. But in Pakistan, public opinion and the government’s reactions to U.S. help — and U.S. hurt — are highly volatile and zoom to extremes. That volatility in turn underlines the unsteady course of the Bush administration’s effort to eliminate al Qaeda and its Taliban allies.

In its tangled relations with Pakistan, Washington rides something far more dangerous than an opinion roller coaster. President Pervez Musharraf’s military regime is the most difficult government in the world to fit into Washington’s struggle against Islamic extremist groups.

Pakistan is essential and helpful in fighting the al Qaeda network — except when it is not. Without Musharraf’s help, the United States and its NATO allies cannot put down the rebellion in Afghanistan being waged by Osama bin Laden’s fanatics and the Taliban. Without Musharraf’s complicity, that rebellion could not continue at its increasingly murderous intensity. We’ve got Musharraf right where he wants us.

Washington and Islamabad are condemned to such strategic ambivalence. Each is unable to do without the other, while wishing it could. That is the political context for the continuing fallout from the unacknowledged U.S. missile strike aimed at al Qaeda bigwigs in the Pakistani village of Damadola on Jan. 13 — an incident that looms large in Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s visit to Washington this week.

The Hellfire missiles aimed from a Predator drone at the bin Laden operatives gathering in Damadola also carried a badly needed message for Musharraf and his intelligence chiefs, who helped create both al Qaeda and Afghanistan’s Taliban: The sanctuary those groups have been granted in Pakistan’s remote tribal lands on the Afghan frontier now exceeds the limits of strategic ambiguity.

Suicide bombings and attacks with roadside explosive devices directed at U.S. and NATO troops as well as Afghan authorities have spiked upward in recent months. U.S. intelligence reports to the Pakistanis on terrorist locations and movements along the frontier have received no effective response from Pakistani authorities during this damaging terrorist upsurge.

“You can draw the Afghan-Pakistan border on a map by looking at the pattern of signal intercepts,” says one U.S. official. “The bad guys chatter away in Pakistan, feeling they are safe. That area lights up like a Christmas tree. Then they go silent when they cross into Afghanistan, where they fear getting hit.”

The aerial strike on Damadola, which is four miles inside Pakistan, killed as many as four al Qaeda chiefs, Pakistani officials concede. Villagers have reported 18 deaths, including some women and children. Musharraf is happy to have Washington bear the entire blame in Pakistani opinion for the reports of collateral damage.

But the story, and the moral burden it involves, seems to be more complicated. The Damadola raid followed by a week a little-noticed assault on the Pakistani village of Saidgi in North Waziristan, where residents described helicopter-borne foreign troops grabbing suspects and flying them back to Afghanistan.

Two limited, carefully planned border attacks in rapid succession would appear to be something more than accidents of opportunity. The escalation by terrorists in Afghanistan has been met with an escalation, still at a low level, in U.S. attacks on Pakistani soil. Musharraf’s failure to curb the terrorist forays into Afghanistan after the incursion at Saidgi conceivably led to the attack on Damadola and the death of innocents there.

The Bush administration is still improvising in its attempts to “enable and encourage” other countries to join its global strategy of counterterrorism. It needs to draw its European and Asian allies that are helping fight the terrorist networks in Afghanistan into a coordinated approach of pressures and incentives for the hugely important, and hugely dangerous, country of Pakistan.

And Washington needs to hold Musharraf’s feet to the fire on al Qaeda and the Taliban, even as it tries to bolster him at home. Whatever else it did or did not accomplish, the Damadola raid surely demonstrated to the Pakistani president that he, too, has much to lose if the terror festival in Afghanistan continues to be run unhindered from Pakistani soil.