The still-shaky security situation in Afghanistan, however, is not Washington's only concern in the region.
Continuing political uncertainties in the wake of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination in neighboring Pakistan, where a number of disparate Islamist and Pashtun militias have recently united under the leadership of a Pakistani Taliban commander closely allied with al Qaeda, have propelled that nuclear-armed nation to the top of Washington's national security agenda.
Indeed, the assertion that "Pakistan is the world's most dangerous place" has become a new cliche of foreign policy discourse here in recent weeks.
Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates highlighted that concern, noting that "Al Qaeda right now seems to have turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on the Pakistani government and Pakistani people," he asserted, just a week before Bhutto's assassination.
Her killing, as well as indications that Pakistan's deeply unpopular president and former army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was manoeuvring to first delay and then to manipulate elections now scheduled for next month, renewed a growing policy debate over what conditions, if any, Washington should attach to its nearly $1.5 billion in mainly military aid to Pakistan this year.
Indeed, the Pentagon's quiet announcement late on Dec. 31, just two days after Bhutto's assassination, that it had approved the transfer by defense giant Lockheed Martin of 18 F-16 warplanes to Pakistan fueled criticism that the administration's priorities were badly skewed.
"The decision to go ahead with a half-billion sale of advanced fighter aircraft to Pakistan shows how dangerous misguided President Bush's policy is: How can the White House even think of green-lighting such a sale at such an incredibly sensitive time," said the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden.
"It sends exactly the wrong message to the Pakistani generals, and to the Pakistani people. This is the time we should be putting the pressure on the government and military to fully investigate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and to hold free and fair elections -- not let them off the hook," he said.
And while Biden and others argued that military aid should be conditioned on political reform, other critics have focused on recent reports that most of the $11 billion the U.S. has provided Pakistan over the past five years has been used to buy conventional weapons systems more appropriate for war against India than the increasingly powerful Pakistani Taliban based in the Pashtun-dominated Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWF).
"The F-16s really can't be used for counter-insurgency in FATA," according to Steve Coll, author of the prize-winning history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and al Qaeda from 1979 to 9/11, "Ghost Wars" and president of the New America Foundation (NAF). "The F-16s are a symbol of what has been wrong with U.S. aid to Pakistan."
Increasingly worried about the advances made by the Pakistani Taliban under Baitullah Mehsud -- whom Musharraf blamed for Bhutto's assassination -- and the ineffectiveness of the Pakistani military in fighting it, top U.S. officials have been discussing plans to authorise the CIA and Special Operations Forces (SOF) to mount cross-border operations from Afghanistan against key Taliban and al Qaeda targets.
Such actions, however, would trigger a severe backlash against both the U.S., whose popularity in Pakistan, like Musharraf's, is at an all-time low, and any Pakistani leader who was seen as condoning the raids, according to regional specialists. Musharraf himself has publicly denounced the idea, although he has occasionally permitted missile strikes against specific targets by U.S. aircraft based in Afghanistan.
"It would be political suicide for a Pakistani leader to permit (such operations)," said Peter Berger, the co-director with Coll of the NAF's Terrorism and Counter-Insurgency Initiative and a well-regarded expert on al Qaeda and the region.
"(Popular) approval for (Osama) bin Laden goes up to 70 percent in FATA and the Northwest Frontier," he added noting that one recent survey showed that three out of four Pakistanis nationwide oppose U.S. intervention.
The administration is also reportedly mulling plans to try to replicate what it considers a success in Pakistan -- supporting Pashtun clan militias that are willing to take on Mehsud and his Taliban, although scores of clan leaders who might have taken up arms were executed or replaced by various Taliban factions over the last several years.
A related option -- which appears to be the operational strategy at the moment -- is to ensure that at least some U.S. military aid is tied to specific performance, step up counter-insurgency training for the army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps, and provide $750 million in development aid to FATA over five years as part of a long-term effort to weaken the insurgency.
But Christine Fair, a regional specialist at the Rand Corporation, has argued that such a plan is "four years too late" given the degree to which radical forces have taken control of the region. "I'm not sure who we would spend it on," she said at a recent briefing.
U.S. officials are also hoping that next month's elections will produce a large moderate and secular majority in parliament, oust the radical coalition of Islamist parties that currently control regional governments in the Pashtun belt, the NWF, and Baluchistan, and help restore confidence in the central government which has been badly battered by Musharraf's efforts over the past year to remain in power.
Meanwhile, Washington hopes that the additional troops next door will help both stabilise Afghanistan and shame its reluctant NATO allies into sending more troops to the same end. Of the 3,200 new troops, about 1,000 will be used for training the Afghan Army, and the rest will be deployed to southern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban alongside British, Australian, Dutch and Canadian troops, who have taken record casualties during the past year.
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Albion Monitor January
15, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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