When Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani
begins his first official visit here at the White House Monday, the welcome
is likely to be a little warmer than he might wish.
Pakistan, which is beset by both a thriving Taliban insurgency and its worst
inflation in some 30 years, has become a serious source of frustration and anxiety
to top U.S. policymakers who have become increasingly direct in blaming Islamabad
for the deteriorating situation in neighboring Afghanistan.
"No question ... that some extremists are coming out of parts of Pakistan
into Afghanistan," Gilani's White House host, President George W. Bush,
told reporters earlier this month after Afghan President Hamid Karzai charged
that Islamabad's intelligence agency was aiding the insurgency.
"That's troubling to us, troubling to Afghanistan, and it should be troubling
to Pakistan," he noted, adding that Washington would investigate Karzai's
Top U.S. military officials, including both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, and the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen.
David McKiernan, have also publicly expressed growing frustration with Pakistan.
According to a London Times report, Mullen reportedly warned privately during
a visit to Islamabad earlier this month that Washington would take unilateral
military action if Pakistan did not move more aggressively to stanch the flow
of fighters across the border into Afghanistan.
Nor is it just the incumbent policymakers who are complaining. Both major presidential
candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have
echoed Bush's complaints as concern about Afghanistan has gained prominence
in the election campaign.
In a major policy address on the eve of his current trip to Afghanistan and
other overseas destinations, Obama took an even more hawkish position than those
of both the administration and McCain, reiterating a controversial threat he
first made early this year that Washington would not "tolerate a terrorist
sanctuary" inside Pakistan.
"We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will
take out high-level terrorist targets if we have them in our sights," he
declared, suggesting that such targets might include indigenous Pakistani Taliban
leaders, such as Baitullah Mehsud, as well as al Qaeda chiefs who are believed
to be sheltered by their Taliban hosts in the Federally Administered Tribal
Such threats and complaints have put Gilani in an extremely difficult position.
His government, which was already weakened by the withdrawal of former President
Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (N) from the ruling coalition two months
ago, now faces a growing economic crisis due to skyrocketing food and fuel prices
and shortages in water and electricity that have spurred protests and even outbreaks
of violence in some of Pakistan's biggest urban areas.
Despite a brief offensive late last month by the paramilitary Frontiers Corps
and police, the Pakistani Taliban forces appear to have tightened their siege
of Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). This growing
influence and control of the Pakistani Taliban and its allies both within FATA
and beyond has contributed to the sense here that the new government has no
strategy for dealing with the insurgency.
"The Taliban is moving forward in a very calculated way," Pervez
Hoodbhoy, a prominent Pakistani commentator, told an audience at the Middle
East Institute (MEI) here earlier this month.
He warned that the insurgency's ambitions to replace secular and tribal law
with Sharia, or Islamic law, extended far beyond the Pashtun-dominated regions
of the country. Although much of Pakistan's "establishment is in denial",
he said the Taliban's latest moves should be seen as a "stepping stone
to the rest of Pakistan".
Even if his government were inclined to take on the Taliban, however, it is
not clear that Gilani could get the support or cooperation of the powerful Pakistani
military which, under Gen. Ashfaz Kayani as with his predecessors, has reportedly
shown little interest in pursuing the kind of aggressive counter-insurgency
strategy that Washington believes is necessary.
U.S. officials have grown increasingly disenchanted with Kayani, whose replacement
of President Pervez Musharraf last fall had fueled hopes that he could persuade
the army that it faced a greater threat from the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies
than from India.
But, to date, Kayani has followed in Musharraf's footsteps by quietly negotiating
ceasefires with the militants while building up the military's conventional
"It has no intention of fighting a U.S. proxy war in the tribal territories,"
according to ret. Brigadier F.B. Ali. "It also knows that the U.S. will
continue to pay it large subsidies to ensure the safeguarding of he U.S. supply
lines to Afghanistan (and the country's nuclear weapons)."
Indeed, Washington's willingness to continue paying such subsidies was very
much in evidence this week when the New York Times reported that the Bush administration
wanted to use 227 million dollars of a 300-million-dollar military aid package
approved by Congress this year to help the Pakistani military buy equipment,
such as helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft, useful for counter-insurgency,
to upgrade some of its F-16 fighter jets instead.
While the State Department said the F-16s could be used to combat terrorism,
some analysts dismissed that notion, suggesting that, by approving such a shift,
Washington was effectively undermining its efforts to persuade the military
that counter-insurgency should be its top priority.
For his part, Gilani is expected to appeal for more economic assistance, which
his government has long argued is critical to defeating or containing the insurgents
in any event. Washington has provided some 10 billion dollars in aid to Pakistan
since 2002, but almost all of it has been military assistance.
On the aid issue, he will receive a particularly a favorable reception from
Democrats, including Obama, who recently endorsed a pending proposal in Congress
to triple non-military aid for Pakistan to 1.5 billion dollars a year, much
of it targeted at FATA. The administration has also conceded the case for more
assistance but has not yet made a specific proposal.
On the Taliban, Gilani will plead, above all, for patience and no doubt warn
against any unilateral military action by the U.S. for which there is a growing
clamors here, particularly in the aftermath of the Taliban attack earlier this
month close to the border in Afghanistan in which nine U.S. soldiers were killed.
"Bombing is going to make things worse," Hoodbhoy told the Institute.
"Don't even think of it. ... For every innocent civilian killed, you will
create 100 Taliban. It would be a catastrophe for the rest of Pakistan."