Crisis in Waiting

The warning signs are growing that Pakistan is probably the crisis that will test the leadership of the next administration, writes Brian Katulis.

A scavenger searches for recyclable items in a garbage dump outside Islamabad, Pakistan. President Bush pledged $115 million in food aid to the country this week in a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A scavenger searches for recyclable items in a garbage dump outside Islamabad, Pakistan. President Bush pledged $115 million in food aid to the country this week in a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

When it comes to national security, the American public and many of our political leaders remain fixated on Iraq, debating over the right timeline for impending U.S. troop withdrawals or whether holding diplomatic meetings with Iran amounts to appeasement amid charges that Iran is arming and training militias in Iraq. One issue that is surprisingly absent from the broader public debate is challenges posed by Pakistan—the country most likely to lead to the next 3 a.m. phone call to the White House.

This week’s visit to Washington by Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani offers an important opportunity to refocus the national security debate on U.S. policy toward Pakistan, a country that sits at the epicenter of multiple threats to global security—international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and endemic poverty. Unfortunately, the Gillani visit does not seem to have broken any new ground.

The Pakistani leader publicly reasserted his country’s opposition to terrorist groups in Pakistan. At the same time, President Bush praised Pakistan’s commitment—even just a few hours after a U.S. missile strike reportedly hit a militant safe haven in Azam Warsak in South Waziristan near the Afghan border. The Bush administration also announced plans to redirect $226 million of proposed military equipment aid intended for Pakistan’s anti-terrorism programs to instead upgrade Pakistan’s fleet of F-16 fighter planes, continuing a narrow U.S. approach that remains heavily focused on conventional military equipment that isn’t all that helpful for rooting out terrorist infrastructures.

These are all troubling signs that the United States and Pakistan are not coming together meaningfully to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But there’s more. A secret meeting leaked to the press today about the July 12 visit to Islamabad by Steve Kappes, the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, underscored the growing frustration with Pakistan inside the U.S. intelligence community. Kappes reportedly joined a small delegation headed by Navy Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so that he could warn Pakistani officials about U.S. concerns regarding ties between Pakistan’s spy agencies and Al Qaeda militants operating in the country.

Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies have been sounding the alarm bell for well over a year about the dangers presented by Pakistan. The February 2008 Annual Threat Assessment by the top U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Al Qaeda had "retained or regenerated key elements of its capability, including top leadership, operational mid-level lieutenants and de facto safe haven in Pakistan’s border area with Afghanistan.” This reiterated earlier warnings in the National Intelligence Estimates released last year, which essentially warned that if another terrorist attack occurs in the United States there’s a good chance it would have been planned and plotted in the lawless border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan has signaled some possible shifts to address the problems in the tribal areas on its western border, telling the Pentagon this week that it is planning to move a unit of its regular army into the area to supplement the operations by the country’s Frontier Corps. But it remains to be seen how large of a force will actually engage in these operations, and whether conventional military action will be the remedy to the problem.

Then there’s the study released by the Rand Corporation this week, “How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al Qa’ida,” by Seth G. Jones and Marin C. Libicki, which concludes that military operations alonerarely are the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups. The study found that since 1968, most terrorist groups ended operations because they joined the political process (43 percent) or local police and intelligence agencies arrested or killed key members (40 percent).

That’s why it is particularly troubling to learn about possible tensions between the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies, and also to hear from the Los Angeles Times that the CIA station chief in Islamabad recently complained that the United States has more counterterrorism officers in Rome than in Islamabad. Clearly, the Bush administration and the next U.S. administration will have their hands full on the Pakistan front.

There are no easy answers for addressing these complicated challenges. The outgoing Bush administration will need to be vigilant, but it will be up to the next U.S. president to move beyond the narrow focus on military-to-military assistance—even though that will remain a key component—by using all the tools at our disposal to tackle what very well may be the most dangerous threat to global security.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and coauthor of the new book on national security, The Prosperity Agenda. To read his reports and analysis on the region, alongside those of his colleagues at the Center, please go to the National Security page of our website.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow