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US Officials Eye Pakistan's Restive Regions

Many U.S. officials say Pakistan is a key ally in the war against terrorism, but they are also concerned that in the past year the western and southern regions of the country have become a base of operations by militants against Afghanistan.

During the past several decades, relations between the United States and Pakistan have fluctuated sharply. From the late 1960s through the 1980s ties between the two countries were friendly. But in the 1990s, relations chilled, and Washington even imposed economic sanctions on Pakistan over its nuclear weapons program. But after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Pakistan sided with Wasington in the war against international terrorism and, as a result, regained its strategic importance to the U.S. During the 1980s, Pakistan was a base for U.S. aid to Islamic militias fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

In 2003, Pakistan received a $3 billion U.S. aid package as well as $1 billion in U.S. loan forgiveness in large part, observers say, for helping fight al-Qaida terrorists in the region.

Richard Boucher, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, recently emphasized Pakistan's role in the war on terrorism.

"Pakistan is enormously cooperative, enormously engaged in this fight. No country has captured more al-Qaida or lost more men doing it than Pakistan. We want to help them, work with them, encourage them."

But Boucher also called for Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, to do more to crack down on al-Qaida and the Taliban that have found refuge along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Many terrorism experts say the region has become a staging ground for the worst violence against Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the hard-line Taliban regime more than five years ago.

The United States plans to give Pakistan some $750 million in aid in the next five years, mostly for the development of the impoverished border region. The proposal still needs approval from the U.S. Congress, which is increasingly concerned over Pakistan's failure to prevent militants crossing over its border into Afghanistan.

Daniel Markey, a specialist on South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says U.S. lawmakers are considering legislation to link American aid to Pakistan's anti-terrorist action.

"The real concern and the issue that has been driving this is an up tick of violence in Afghanistan, which has been by nearly all accounts now traced back to sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the border. And this started about a year ago, which in some respects caught NATO and the United States off guard. By last fall, the pressure on Pakistan started to get more intense and that's only gone up."

Some experts argue that Pakistan, while taking a hard stand against al-Qaida, is more tolerant of the Taliban. They say the source of conflict in Afghanistan lies in Pakistan.

James Dobbins is Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation in Washington and a former U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan under President Bush.

"The insurgency is organized, led, recruited, trained and funded by Pakistan and it operates into Afghanistan. U.S., NATO, Afghan and U.N. officials all have said informally that the Pakistani intelligence service has had a relationship with the Taliban and has provided support to the Taliban."

Islamabad denies any official support for these activities.

In 2004, President Musharraf, in an effort to quell the violence, deployed some 7,000 Pakistani troops to the border area. But many analysts say the operation failed mostly because of opposition in the army to fighting the region's predominantly ethnic Pashtun tribes, who historically have resisted Pakistani rule and have strong ties with the sizable, Pashtun population on the Afghan side of the border.

Two years later, and after heavy military casualties inflicted by pro-Taliban rebels, President Musharraf changed course by reaching a peace agreement with tribal elders who promised to keep al-Qaida and Taliban operatives out of the region. In return, Islamabad promised regional development aid and assistance to strengthen local security forces.

But Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations contends the new policy isn't working and that the situation is detrimental to Pakistan's interests.

"The government in Islamabad is realizing that what is now being called 'the Talibanization of the frontier' also hurts the prospects for Islamabad having any writ [i.e., formal authority] in that area and it hurts Pakistan's chances at becoming a modern state. They are gradually coming around to the idea that they have to fight the Talibanization. But this is a difficult thing to do because they have been cooperating with these groups for decades. Disentangling from that is a big challenge."

Some analysts argue that Islamabad's partnership with the United States in the war on terrorism has come at a high political price. Recent attacks against the Pakistani army in the north and south, suicide bombings and sectarian violence across Pakistan point to increased tensions between the government and its opponents.

South Asia expert Stanley Kober at the Washington-based Cato Institute, says particularly troubling is the mounting lawlessness in major cities, like Islamabad and Karachi.

"The deciding line here is the deteriorating law and order, which would suggest that it really is getting bad. It's not just the army now, but the police. There is no respect for law and order. The upsurge in crime suggests to me that the writ of the state is beginning to weaken. And if this is the case in key cities, then you have to wonder how can they maintain control in the border areas, which have been largely independent?"

Kober says at stake are Pakistan's relations with the United States. He notes that if the situation improves in the tribal areas and in Afghanistan, relations will move ahead. But if they don't, most experts say, Congressional pressure to change U.S. policy toward Islamabad will likely intensify.