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Pakistan Problem: No, We Can't!

Pakistan Problem: No, We Can't!

by Steve Weissman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Whether ordained by God, the crusade against communism or the Global War on Terror, many Americans believe we have a mandate to police the world, hold dominion over its supply of oil and natural gas and lead the way in whatever way we happen to be leading at the time. John F. Kennedy and his New Frontiersmen believed all this as they escalated their terrible war of choice in Southeast Asia. George W. Bush and his neoincompetents still believe they pursued America's destiny in Iraq. And, from their writing and speeches, Barack Obama and his national security team believe no less strongly in America's calling to put the world right.

Yes, we can, they think, wherever in the world they look. But, no, we can't in the one place it could count the most: the nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Here, Team Obama should recognize the limits of their power and work to keep from making the situation worse, especially in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Mumbai.

The limits are obvious. In the hours after the terror attacks of 9/11, in 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage worked to bring Pakistan on-side in what would become the Global War on Terror. The head of Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was visiting the United States and Armitage, a former Navy SEAL, threatened him with what would happen if the military dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf refused American demands. As Musharraf told CBS's "60 Minutes," Armitage warned, "Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age."

Armitage denied using those words, but there should be no doubt that he and Powell both pressured Pakistani officials. The question for Team Obama: How well did the pressure work?

Musharraf himself did most of what the Bush administration asked - all in exchange for their backing his military dictatorship against those fighting for a return to civilian rule. But elements of the Pakistani military and ISI continued to work with the Taliban, which they had helped create to strengthen their influence against India in Afghanistan. As late as this past June, the ISI was implicated in the terror bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

Apparently, ISI veterans also maintained direct contact with al-Qaeda, which had helped train fighters for the on and off war against India in disputed Kashmir. The training included Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the Army of the Pure, which the lone surviving terrorist in the Mumbai attack reportedly identified as its sponsor. According to press accounts, he also told of being trained at six or more Lashkar camps in Pakistani Kashmir by retired Pakistani military officers.

Even more limiting for Obama, Pakistan's new civilian government appears to exercise zero control over either the military or the ISI. Only last month, the government announced that ISI would report on its domestic spying and covert political activities to the civilian Interior Ministry. Within a day, the military and ISI forced the government to rescind its order. So, with which Pakistanis does an Obama administration deal?

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden threw his support to the newly-elected civilian government, introducing a foreign aid bill for Pakistan that aimed at building schools, roads, clinics, and other development projects. Obama backed Biden in the new emphasis, which makes the aid contingent on Pakistan maintaining human rights, an independent judiciary and civilian control of the levers of power, including the military and intelligence agencies.

On the Pakistani side, President Asif Ali Zadari, widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, wrote that "the Mumbai attacks were directed not only at India but also at Pakistan's new democratic government." Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani similarly showed enormous courage in raiding training camps of the already-outlawed Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and closing down its political wing, Jamaat-ud Dawa, which many Pakistanis see as a charity that did commendable work after the last earthquake in Kashmir.

The government also detained, but apparently did not jail, Lashkar's founder Hafiz Saeed and one of its top leaders, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, whom the Indians suspect of having masterminded the Mumbai massacres..

How can the Obama administration best support these efforts? By talking softly and playing its role quietly behind the scenes. Too many Pakistanis already believe that their government is acting against Muslim good guys and freedom fighters as a result of pressure from either the Americans or our Indian allies.

Team Obama could also help dissuade the Indians from making military threats, encourage both India and Pakistan to share intelligence information and work to help resolve the Kashmir dispute.

But, sadly, the biggest threat to Pakistan's civilian government could come from Obama himself. He and his team have already made a priority of escalating the war in Afghanistan and chasing down al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. Most of this will require high-level contacts between our brass and Pakistan's military leaders, which will strengthen their hand as a force independent of the new civilian government.

Worse, what will Team Obama do when that government asks them, as it repeatedly asked Bush, to stop cross-border raids by American Special Forces or rocket attacks from unmanned drones? To refuse their requests, as Bush did, would make the civilian government look ineffective and could help promote another military coup or even a civil war in the one Islamic country that already has a nuclear arsenal. I doubt that this is what Obama wants to do.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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