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Distrust dogs U.S., Pakistan |

Distrust dogs U.S., Pakistan

| Wednesday, May 6, 2009 12:00 a.m

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Political and military threats in Pakistan and Afghanistan are the major concerns for President Obama as he meets today with the presidents of those nations in Washington.

Pakistan, in particular, “remains highly precarious,” according to Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

Pakistani officials, however, say they are alarmed by a “trust deficit” with the United States. And it must be overcome, they insist, to defeat Islamist militants trying to seize control of Pakistan, a nation of 170 million and the Islamic world’s lone nuclear power.

In addition to being a key U.S. ally in the region and in the war on terror, Pakistan is the only overland supply line for U.S.-led forces fighting in Afghanistan.

“It is high time to reduce the trust deficit,” Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the Tribune-Review in a recent interview in his office in the Pakistani capital.

Doing so would lead to the “sharing of real-time information for real-time action against … these terrorists,” the interior minister said.

“There is no double game, there is only a single game,” Malik said. “… (The) Taliban are the common enemy of the world, including Pakistan.

“… Let’s stop the multidirectional approach, let’s have a single approach … to fight against the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghani Taliban together.”

Zahid Hussain, author of “Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam,” agrees that the level of distrust “is alarming.”

“The problem with Pakistan and America is that their relationship is vital for each other … but the trust issue is also huge,” he says.

“There is quite a paradox here. They are suspicious of each other while they need each other now more than at any time in the past.”

Teetering toward extremism

The Obama administration came to power promising a different relationship with the region and a renewed effort to defeat al-Qaida and other Islamic militants there.

Yet recent weeks have shown Pakistan to be teetering toward an extremist takeover, while Afghanistan’s government and the U.S.-led war effort there are both strained.

Near-daily terrorist attacks are spreading in Pakistan’s most important cities as the Pakistani Taliban solidifies its rule over large swaths of the country. The lawless, underdeveloped mountainous tribal area is a sanctuary for al-Qaida and its foreign affiliates.

Regional jihadi groups in Pakistan’s heartland have launched attacks on the cultural center of Lahore and in India. And separatists are agitating for independence in the country’s largest province, Baluchistan.

A desperate situation and a degree of mistrust were underscored by House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, during an interview last week in Washington.

Boehner described Pakistan as “very unstable” with “very weak leadership” and a military that is “totally ill-prepared, ill-equipped and ill-trained to deal with” extremists.

He said, “Big elements of the military and (Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus) … have close ties with al-Qaida, the Taliban and other terrorists organizations” — a view widely shared among U.S. officials.

“Pakistan is fully committed to root out terrorism,” Interior Minister Malik countered in his interview with the Tribune-Review. “We do have the will to do it.”

But, he conceded, “We do not have much ability in terms of the capacity of our forces — they were not trained for fighting terrorism.”

Containing insurgents

U.S. officials, however, have said the situation is so dire that the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari could fall at any time; several predict a return to military rule.

Some Pakistani analysts say their country lacks a coherent anti-terrorism policy.

“There is no coordination between the military and the civilian government on this issue,” says author Hussain. “There is a lot of misgiving among various institutions … and that has given a huge space to the militants. They have a free hand now.”

Pakistani military officers claim past success against the militants in Bajour Agency, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border with Afghanistan.

From his office in the military-garrison city of Rawalpindi, a military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said a coordinated campaign with NATO and U.S. forces on the Afghan side of the border has helped to contain and defeat the insurgents.

The military has backed armed villagers, he said.

Yet Abbas said that Pakistani and U.S. military operations in the tribal area have damaged the civilian infrastructure and caused civilian casualties.

“We require an immediate development and reconstruction phase,” he said. “Unless that addresses the people’s grievances … there will be a loss of public support.”

He said he fears “creating a big vacuum there in which maybe the militants have a chance to reassert themselves.”

Trying to assert control

The United States has allocated $750 million for development in the tribal region, and Obama has pledged more aid based on Pakistan’s success in battling terrorism.

Many analysts are alarmed by the growing linkage between regional jihadi groups in Pakistan’s heartland and those in the tribal region.

Others say Pakistan’s army has been demoralized by brutal fighting in the tribal area, while the nation’s police force became ineffectual during nine years of military rule that ended in 2008.

“Building the capacity of the police and law enforcement agencies will be a major step forward to countering terrorism in Pakistan,” says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that tries to develop solutions in conflict areas.

“The military control over national security policy will remain the biggest challenge, because it is not going to go away overnight,” she said. “And that is where I think the United States must focus its efforts.”

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