Sunday, December 30, 2007

U.S. worried new turmoil could affect Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — President Bush held an emergency meeting of his top foreign-policy aides Friday to discuss the deepening crisis in Pakistan, as administration officials and others explored whether Thursday's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto marks the beginning of a new Islamic extremist offensive that could spread beyond Pakistan and undermine the U.S. war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.

U.S. officials fear that a renewed campaign by Islamic militants aimed at the Pakistani government, and based along the border with Afghanistan, would complicate U.S. policy in the region by effectively merging the six-year-old war in Afghanistan with Pakistan's growing turbulence.

"The fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably tied," said J. Alexander Thier, a former U.N. official in Afghanistan who is now at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

U.S. military officers and other defense experts are concerned that continued instability eventually will spill over and intensify the fighting in Afghanistan, which has spiked in recent months as the Taliban have strengthened and expanded its operations.

Unrest in Pakistan and increasing fuel prices already have boosted the cost of food in Afghanistan, making it more likely that hungry Afghans will be lured by payments from the Taliban to participate in attacks, a U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan said.

"We've really got a new situation here in western Pakistan," said Army Col. Thomas Lynch III, who has served in Afghanistan and with Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for Pakistan and the Middle East. He said the assassination marks a "critical new phase" in jihadist operations in Pakistan and predicted the coming months would bring concentrated attacks on other prominent Pakistanis.

"The Taliban ... are indeed a growing element of the domestic political stew" in Pakistan, said John Blackton, who served as a U.S. official in Afghanistan in the 1970s and again 20 years later. He noted that Pakistani military intelligence created the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"Pakistan must take drastic action against the Taliban in its midst or we will face the prospect of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of al-Qaida — a threat far more dangerous and real than Hussein's arsenal ever was," he said, referring to the deposed Saddam Hussein.

But President Pervez Musharraf has a track record of promising much to Washington but doing little to counter the militants, others said.

"My prediction is, Musharraf will go into a bunker mentality and be nicer to the Muslims," said John McCreary, who led the Defense Intelligence Agency's 2001 task force on Afghanistan. "He goes through the pretenses of crackdown but never follows through."

"Pakistan isn't really engaged in a fight against terror," Blackton added. "One of the mistakes amongst many U.S. policymakers is to project the American construct of a war on terror onto the Pakistani regime struggle for survival. There are some congruencies between the two, but even more differences."

The clever move for Musharraf would be to allay such doubts by capturing or killing a major Islamic extremist leader in the coming weeks, said Larry Goodson, an area expert who teaches strategy at the U.S. Army War College. But he said he doubts that would happen or that Musharraf would take many concrete actions, aside possibly from declaring a new state of emergency.

A countervailing pressure on Musharraf is that if he does not respond effectively to an Islamic militant campaign against his government, he also could face falling from power. At some point, said Teresita Schaffer, a former State Department official specializing in India and Pakistan, the Pakistani army "could conclude that he's a liability."

The Seattle Times


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