Along with a deep recession, President Bush is bequeathing his successor a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan - but there are positive signs across the border in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s new civilian government and military high command are at last taking steps to attack the safe havens that Islamic militants use to menace Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan itself. “We have a tribal awakening program whereby the tribes are being mobilized to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban,” Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, told me.
“The Pakistani army has committed itself, especially in an area called Bajur, which borders Kunar Province in Afghanistan, which has been a stronghold for al Qaeda.
“And, we have used our air force for the first time, thereby diminishing the need for America to come into the Pakistani side and bomb.”
State Department officials confirm the antiterrorist effort being mounted by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kiyani is “much more serious than ever before,” though they - along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen - say the effort has to be sustained, and a lot more needs to be done.
Mr. Haqqani, a former professor at Boston University and close adviser to assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and now to Mr. Zardari, her widowed husband, is currently appealing for international aid to bolster the Pakistani economy.
“If AGI is deserving of a bailout, then surely strategically located Pakistan deserves a bailout,” he said. “And [Pakistan’s] is not going to be as large as some of the corporate and banking bailouts currently being worked out.”
With its reserves bled dry by former President Pervez Musharraf, who used government money to keep fuel prices low as part of an effort to keep himself in power, Pakistan is seeking $10 billion to $12 billion in guarantees from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United States, China and Gulf Arabs to tide it over. The United States is helping with an IMF plan - likely to be $5 billion to $10 billion, a State Department official said - and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has tried to form a “Friends of Pakistan” consortium but so far has gotten only “promises, not pledges or numbers.”
What Pakistan is trying to do, Mr. Haqqani said, is “fight a war and restructure an economy simultaneously. It’s not easily done.” State Department officials give Mr. Zadari and Mr. Haqqani credit for dedicating themselves to fighting Islamic extremism even though cooperation with the United States remains unpopular in Pakistan.
U.S. officials also acknowledge that Mr. Zardari and Mr. Kiyani have taken steps to reform Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, thought to be riddled with pro-Taliban elements, and to repair previously tense relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. And they give Mr. Kiyani credit for stationing an additional 10,000 troops in tribal areas along the Afghan border and stepping up military operations against militants.
At a breakfast with reporters last week, Adm. Mullen said “the recent changeout” at ISI was “encouraging.” It involved replacing the agency’s chief, closing its “political cell” and ousting four department heads, including the chief of its operations section, accused by the CIA of involvement in the August bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan.
U.S. intelligence officials have told the Pakistanis that ISI agents also helped Islamic extremists assassinate Mrs. Bhutto. Mr. Zardari declared in a New York Times interview last month that he was dedicated to fighting terrorists “because they are a cancer to my society, not only because of my wife.” But he acknowledged, “It is my revenge.”
Mr. Zardari’s allies have mounted a huge “It’s Our War” public relations campaign designed to win popular support for antiterror policies - and it was doubtless assisted by the Sept. 20 suicide bomb that destroyed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, killing more than 60 people.
Possibly the government’s most significant step is organization of tribal “awakening” militias akin to those established among Sunnis in Iraq, to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Previously, tribal leaders were bribed and intimidated by militants, but some have turned against them in reaction to their extremism and brutality - and also because the Pakistani government is now paying them.
In retaliation, a terrorist bomb killed 40 tribal elders at a meeting last week. Mr. Haqqani told me, “The more we hit them, the more they are likely to fight back and hit us in our cities.”
The questions U.S. State and Defense Department officials ask concern Pakistan’s ability and willingness to carry on the antiterror fight over the long run. “Is this a surge or a sustained effort?” one official asked. Adm. Mullen said, for example, that the Pakistani military needs to shift its entire emphasis from conventional conflict with India to counterinsurgency against militants, which the United States is assisting.
The stakes could not be higher. As Adm. Mullen warned - echoing reports of a forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate - “the trends across the board (in Afghanistan) are not going in the right direction.”
Much of the Afghan trouble lies with dysfunction and corruption in the Afghan government, too few and badly coordinated NATO forces and a booming opium trade.
But the terrorist safe haven in Pakistan is a crucial problem, too. Pakistan is trying to address it, but it needs help.
Congress could play its part by passing legislation sponsored by Sens. Joseph Biden, Delaware Democrat, and Dick Lugar, Indiana Republican, to provide $1.5 billion a year in economic aid. Endorsed by both presidential candidates, the legislation was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But it was never voted upon by the full Senate, and no appropriation has even been introduced in the House.
The next president certainly will put more forces into Afghanistan. But as long as Congress is spending zillions on bailouts and stimuli, it ought to be able to come up with a billion for strategic Pakistan.
Morton Kondracke is a nationally syndicated columnist.