Pervez Musharraf insisted that the peace deal he signed with tribal chiefs would not interfere with the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. No one really bought it, but the Bush administration put the best face on it in order to keep Musharraf in the fold. Now that seems to have ended, and the White House has decided on a different, tougher approach to the Pakistani president:
President Bush has decided to send an unusually tough message to one of his most important allies, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda, senior administration officials say.
The decision came after the White House concluded that General Musharraf is failing to live up to commitments he made to Mr. Bush during a visit here in September. General Musharraf insisted then, both in private and public, that a peace deal he struck with tribal leaders in one of the country’s most lawless border areas would not diminish the hunt for the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban or their training camps.
Now, American intelligence officials have concluded that the terrorist infrastructure is being rebuilt, and that while Pakistan has attacked some camps, its overall effort has flagged.
“He’s made a number of assurances over the past few months, but the bottom line is that what they are doing now is not working,” one senior administration official who deals often with South Asian issues said late last week. “The message we’re sending to him now is that the only thing that matters is results.”
Democrats have started pressuring the White House to push Musharraf harder, and it seems to have had an effect. Of course, the Bush administration has made more of an effort of late to call in markers. First, they told Nouri al-Maliki in no uncertain terms that he had to quit protecting the militias. Now they have made it clear to Musharraf that our aid won't go to someone who allows AQ to build bases in his country.
The Bush administration still rules out direct attacks on training camps inside Pakistan, but someone will have to attack those camps. Bush will probably give Musharraf the same kind of talk he gave to Maliki about that, too. If an American attack on those bases will destabilize Musharraf -- and they probably will -- then Musharraf had best start doing it himself. We can't wait forever while al-Qaeda re-establishes themselves as a fully operational terrorist group.
Make no mistake, though -- a destabilized Musharraf could be a very big problem. Pakistan has a full-blown nuclear-weapons program, and if Musharraf gets ousted by a popular Islamist revolt, then the Islamists will have their hands on an arsenal that they could aim almost anywhere in south Asia. They could transfer the weapons to al-Qaeda in order to use them as proxies, too.
Pakistan has always been a tightrope, and our coordination with them will become even more of a high-wire act over the next few weeks. The status quo is obviously not acceptable, and the only two options are to press forward or go back, and both are equally dangerous.