You are herecontent / Pakistan an Early Test of Obama’s Approach
Pakistan an Early Test of Obama’s Approach
Vice President Joseph R. Biden is a famously garrulous guy. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he would talk endlessly about what went wrong in Iraq or how to engage Iran, offering tutorials on the modern histories of those countries, and winding around to a seven-point plans about what needs to happen next.
So it was pretty noticeable on Sunday, when Bob Schieffer of CBS asked Mr. Biden a seemingly straightforward question about whether the United States would notify Pakistan before sending forces on cross-border raids to capture or kill al Qaeda or insurgents from the country’s ungovernable tribal areas, that Mr. Biden shut up.
“I can’t respond to that question,” he said sharply. “I’m not going to respond to that question.”
For the past week the news about the Obama administration has been contained in its announcements about what will change: the order signed last week to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay within a year, the statement by the nominee for attorney general that he considered waterboarding to be torture.
But equally revealing are the silences about some Bush administration policies that Mr. Obama and his team are clearly in no rush to terminate. The not-so-covert attacks into Pakistani territory are a prime example.
There, in the territory that Mr. Obama keeps calling the true “central front” in the war on terror, the early signals suggest that Mr. Obama plans to keep up the military pressure. It will be an interesting test. After several days in which the new secretary of the state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has heralded the arrival of “smart power” to the State Department — implying that the kind exercised by the previous occupants was something else — one big question about the new Obama team is under what conditions they plan to make use of old-fashioned hard power.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are almost certainly the places where that question will play out first. The immediate issue facing Mr. Obama as he descends into the Situation Room to begin weighing the options — the first meeting was held on Friday, and reached no conclusions — is whether he plans to continue the operations over the border into the territory of Pakistan, an ally, that President Bush secretly authorized last July.
Mr. Bush acted out of enormous frustration with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who left office under duress the next month. Pakistan had been unwilling or unable to clear out the Taliban and other insurgents operating in the tribal areas and Waziristan.
Mr. Bush’s intelligence chiefs told him that Pakistani policy was to support both sides of the war , fighting the Taliban some days, and supporting their operations into Afghanistan on others, out of fear that they were the only hedge against the creeping influence of India in the southern part of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s fear is that if the Americans give up on Afghanistan, and despite Mr. Obama’s assurances, they suspect the United States will, India will move in to surround Pakistan, and ultimately crush it.
So Mr. Bush authorized the C.I.A. and the Joint Special Operations Command to make ground incursions into Pakistan. One, in September against a suspected al Qaeda safehouse, resulted in a firefight that left a score of Pakistanis dead. There were exchanges of fire across the border between American and Pakistani troops.
It wasn’t exactly a sterling example of the strength of the American-Pakistani alliance. The intelligence agencies and the military have pulled back their operations since, though there are reports of continued, low-level action across the border.
The week since Mr. Obama’s inauguration has brought continued tension between the United States and Pakistan. A missile strike into Pakistan on Friday, the first under Mr. Obama’s watch, led to protests by the Pakistanis. The new White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, dodged the question when asked whether Mr. Obama had approved the strike in advance. Like Mr. Biden, he simply wouldn’t talk about it.
The same day, Mr. Musharraf told CNN that "Pakistan is being treated so unequally while we are the ones who are in the lead role fighting the global war on terror.” He complained that the United States is undercutting the Pakistani intelligence service, believed to be the centerpiece of sympathies for the Taliban, and the military.
“This is what hurts Pakistan,” he said. “It hurts the leadership. Indeed, it hurts the government. It hurts the people of Pakistan.”
Although it is unclear whether Pakistan had advance warning of last week’s strike — when about it, Mr. Biden also ducked the question — some senior American officials say that if Pakistan is notified, it gets that notice just before the strike happens.
There were new complaints as well in recent days from Hamid Karzai, the embattled president of Afghanistan, who protested another American strike on the Afghan side of the border that Mr. Karzai said killed many civilians. Facing a tough re-election campaign in which it is unclear whether Washington will support him, the weak and unpopular Mr. Karzai has begun distancing himself from the ally that put him in power.
Now the whole strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan is about to undergo a rethinking by Mr. Obama and his team. There are three major reviews of American strategy in the region under way — one completed by Mr. Bush’s national security council, one just finished by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and one still under way by Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is credited for turning around the Iraq war and is now in charge of Central Command, which oversees American military action in the region. Then there is the entry of Richard C. Holbrooke as the new special envoy for the region, an effort to show a revived interest in diplomacy.
Some of the first steps are easy to figure out; Mr. Biden was the cosponsor of legislation in the Senate last year to triple non-military aid to Pakistan, and Mr. Obama has promised vastly larger resources to rebuilding Afghanistan. The administration has promised tens of thousands of more troops.
But the new administration knows that until the Taliban no longer has a sanctuary in Pakistan, the conflict in Afghanistan is, in the words of one member of the Joint Chiefs, “a war without end.” The question is how much hard power Mr. Obama wants to blend into his smart power mix — a question Mr. Biden and his colleagues are unlikely to be able to dodge for long.