/ 28 March 2009

Can Pakistan deliver on US strategy demands?

Pakistan’s new role at the centre of the fight against al-Qaeda will lead to more extremist violence and pose huge challenges to a government with a doubtful ability to deliver, analysts say.

US President Barack Obama on Friday unveiled a new strategy on the war in Afghanistan, pledging to send 4 000 more US troops and to triple US
aid to Pakistan to $7,5-billion over five years.

Obama warned al-Qaeda was a ”cancer” that could devour Pakistan, whose border regions were the ”most dangerous place in the world” for Americans.

”Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al-Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders,” he said, throwing down the gauntlet to the nuclear-armed nation.

The US moves were cheered by allies, and hailed by both Afghanistan and Pakistan, ahead of an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague next week.

President Asif Ali Zardari, deeply unpopular at home but whose cash-strapped government depends on US money, welcomed the initiatives
”to strengthen democracy” and Obama’s call on Congress to pass $7,5-billion of aid.

But analysts, while welcoming the injection of aid and incentives to turn those in Pakistan’s al-Qaeda and Taliban-infested tribal areas on the Afghan border away from militancy, warned the country could pay a huge price.

”The level of violence will increase,” said Talat Masood, foreign policy and security analyst.

”The Taliban will respond and will not sit silent. The insurgency will be re-invigorated and Pakistan will come under greater pressure from internal terrorism and insurgency,” he said.

As if to show the scale of the task facing the troubled nation, just hours before Obama’s address a suicide bomber killed about 50 people at a packed mosque in Khyber, a key route for Nato supplies going to Afghanistan and where Pakistani forces have been battling militants.

It was the latest in a string of deadly attacks by extremists opposed to Pakistan’s decision to side with the United States in its ”war on terror” which have killed nearly 1 700 people in less than two years.

Analysts said now the United States had announced its new course, the onus was on Pakistan to step up its game or face the consequences.

”They expect Pakistan to be a much stronger partner with far greater commitment to fight terrorism. It is a policy in which Pakistan has to
act and if not, the US is not going to provide assistance,” said Masood.

There is no sign that Washington will bow to Pakistani demands and stop controversial drone attacks targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban militants — which the government bitterly opposes and which have killed more than 340 people.

”There is no indication that the drone attacks in Pakistan areas will stop,” said foreign policy analyst Hasan Askari.

”Perhaps the US will give some time to Pakistan to show its capacity of dealing with the extremist threat in the tribal areas. If Pakistan is unable to do that, the US will return to the drone attacks strategy,” he said.

Imtiaz Gul, head of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, said that Obama has made it clear US forces are going to chase the al-Qaeda leadership ”wherever it is,” which would stoke more resentment in Pakistan.

”Pakistan is now really in the eye of the storm because the focus has been shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan,” he said.

”It puts Pakistan’s government in a very tight spot. It shall have to balance the ambitious American agenda with domestic resentment, which is likely to arise as a hot pursuit of al-Qaeda.”

Amid the spiralling challenges, analysts warned that it was unclear how the weak government would cope.

”The US wants a result-oriented operation. Success in the war on terror is only possible if all the domestic problems which Pakistan is facing nowadays are resolved,” warned retired lieutenant general Naseer Ahmad.

Pakistan is still reeling from a deep political crisis. Zardari is at loggerheads with main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and the country’s economy is stagnant.

The military is ill-equipped for fighting the insurgency. Neither is the civilian government in full control of the powerful security apparatus.

The top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said Friday there were ”indications” that elements of Pakistan’s intelligence service are lending support to al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Agency (ISI) has been widely accused of refusing to sever its links with Islamist groups that date back to the Cold War and the US-backed fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. – AFP