Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

U.S. To Pakistan: Get In Or Get Out Of The Way

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on May 10, 2010

Almost a week and a half after the failed car bombing in Times Square, all arrows continue to point towards Pakistan as the staging ground for the attack.

This new evidence is not just the result of great police gruntwork and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Pakistan…it is the result of a confession.  Faisal Shahzad, the man who is responsible for the botched terror attempt, spilled his guts to interrogators that he traveled to Pakistan months earlier and received explosives training from a terrorist camp in North Waziristan.  This is the same agency, by the way, that is host to a tangled web of Islamic militant groups (Al’Qaeda Central, the Pakistani Taliban, Jaish e-Mohammad, Chechen extremists, and Uzbek militants are all thought to be using North Waziristan as a safe-haven).  Oh and one more thing…the United States has been pressing the Pakistani Government to launch a new military offensive in North Waziristan since the beginning of this year.

So perhaps it’s not all that surprising that the United States is starting to consider a beefed up presence in western Pakistan.  The New York Times reported over the weekend that U.S. Central Command is starting to debate whether more American troops should be deployed inside the Northwest Frontier Province.

Of course, this is hardly a new idea.  The United States has repeatedly asked the Pakistani Government to go into North Waziristan in the hopes of flushing out the militants from their remaining safe-haven.  And to date, the Pakistanis have repeatedly rebuffed the offer, complaining that such an operation would jeopardize the gains already made in areas like South Waziristan and the Swat Valley.  And they may indeed be right.  The Pakistani Military is fighting a counterinsurgency after all, and this type of battle limits the types of tactics the military can use.  As in all counterinsurgencies, the Pakistani army needs to hold the area under its control and build up local institutions before insurgents come creeping back.

But American patience is wearing thin, and the attempted car bombing in the heart of America’s biggest city is only reinforcing this belief.  Fortunately, the Pakistanis are starting to recognize this.

Intellectuals both inside and outside the Pakistani Government understand that they got lucky.  Consider the alternative; if Shahzad’s bomb went off as planned, relations with the United States probably would have deteriorated to levels not seen in decades.  Billions of dollars in security assistance from Washington would be severed, and the Pakistanis would run the risk of losing their biggest ally at a tumultuous time in their nation’s history…all because Pakistan dragged their heels on North Waziristan.

Today, the Pakistanis are breathing a sigh of relief.  Yet this relief could come with a price tomorrow.  The Times Square incident has sent a powerful signal to the military that Washington will not tolerate floundering over North Waziristan anymore.

In fact, the time may have already come.  U.S. Central Command is already debating whether to introduce more American trainers inside Pakistan as an alternative to waiting for a new Pakistani operation.   The U.S. already has around 200 advisors inside the country, which doesn’t even include the dozens of drone aircraft patrolling Pakistani airspace on a daily basis.

But all of this can be avoided, if and only if Pakistan finally gets on board.  They have cooperated (and continue to cooperate) on the Shahzad investigation, but this should only serve as a jumping-off point.  The message from D.C. is clear: cleanse North Waziristan or risk losing the goodwill they have gained over the past few months.

Hillary Clinton’s remarks last night on 60 Minutes exemplify the seriousness of the current situation: if a successful act of terrorism against the U.S. homeland is traced back to Pakistan, there will be “severe consequences.”

What she means by “severe” is anyone’s guess.  But her message to the Pakistani leadership is loud and clear.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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