Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Pakistan this week in an effort to persuade Islamabad to help rather than hinder the war against jihadist terror. Pakistan’s status as a sanctuary for Taliban and al Qaeda has taken on new urgency for the U.S. military due to a dramatic upsurge in violence against U.S. and NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan. The situation came to a head Sept. 3, when the U.S. military conducted its first ground assault into Pakistan’s tribal region in pursuit of radical Islamists, angering the Pakistani government and military.
The raid drew threats to kill any U.S. soldier caught in the course of an “unauthorized” incursion into Pakistan. A critical goal of Adm. Mullen’s mission is reaching an understanding about what action the U.S. military will be permitted to take against Pakistan-based terrorists whose goal is to cross the border into Afghanistan and kill as many American soldiers (along with their NATO and Afghan allies) as possible. Pakistani officials say privately that they are willing to accept U.S. strikes utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles that have been coordinated with the Pakistani military. Pakistan objects to the Sept. 3 operation, using ground troops and helicopters, because it was not coordinated with its government.
But Washington has good reason to be wary of the Pakistani government and military, and it’s no secret what the problem is: The Pakistani army has been heavily infiltrated by Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers, and the same is true of Pakistan’s security service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In important respects, the current difficulties between the United States and Pakistan are but the latest chapter of a long-running dispute between the two nations over Pakistan’s relationships with al Qaeda and other radical Islamist forces in the region. During the 1990s, Pakistani governments headed by the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her successor as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and then Gen. Pervez Musharraf, went out of their way to placate the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan while the ISI was known to maintain good relations with al Qaeda. This situation changed to some degree after September 11, when Gen. Musharraf began in essence playing a double game (in exchange for $10 billion in assistance from the U.S. taxpayer): assisting U.S. forces in capturing and killing al Qaeda operatives part of the time, while providing the terrorists with sanctuary, bases and protection the other part of the time.
This approach may have seemed bearable to U.S. policymakers several years ago, when the Taliban appeared to have been routed in neighboring Afghanistan. That situation no longer exists, and Pakistan’s role in sheltering jihadists has become less and less tolerable. Pakistan’s continued refusal to take action against terrorists operating on its soil may be on the verge of opening a dark new chapter in relations with the United States.