Pakistan’s Enduring Challenges: Threats to U.S. Security Remain

Read Caroline Wadhams and Brian Katulis’ previous dispatches from Pakistan:

Turning a Corner: Pakistan Elections Offer Promise

Pakistan: The Next Steps

As the dust settles from this past week’s historic elections in Pakistan and the post-election coalition-building efforts now ongoing among the victorious opposition political parties, the United States cannot lose sight of how Pakistan’s leaders tackle the enduring security challenges that the country faces, including the presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership within their country’s borders.

Pakistanis seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief after no major terrorist attacks occurred on Election Day and its immediate aftermath. But many worry this relative calm over the past few days will not continue, with concern growing about possible terrorist attacks in the coming days. Indeed, the relatively peaceful elections that allowed Pakistani voters to express their opposition to Pakistan’s deeply unpopular President Pervez Musharraf has not erased the considerable national security challenges that remain, including the threat posed by global terrorist groups.

In Pakistan, total casualties from terrorist incidents in 2007 exceeded all of the casualties from terrorist attacks in the six years from 2001 to 2006. Just last week, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan was kidnapped and remains missing. In addition, two nuclear scientists working with Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission were kidnapped in the North-West Frontier Provinces around the same time.

Although Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud has been relatively quiet in the past week, speculation is rife in Pakistan that his supporters may reemerge in the coming days with more attacks. Thirteen people were killed when a wedding party was bombed in the Swat valley on Friday, underscoring the ongoing threat to the people of Pakistan.

Earlier this month, top U.S. intelligence officials in Washington briefed Congress on its annual global threat assessment, and Pakistan featured prominently. The Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell reiterated findings from previous National Intelligence Estimates that Al Qaeda has been able to retain a safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan, and that the terrorist network in league with the Taliban have used this safe haven as a training and staging ground for new terrorist attacks.

This sanctuary exists today because of flaws in President Musharraf’s approach to dealing with terrorists within his country and the Bush administration’s greatest strategic error—wading into an unnecessary war of choice in Iraq in 2003, diverting U.S. attention and resources away from finishing off Al Qaeda after the successful invasion of Afghanistan. And despite relatively successful elections, all is not well on Pakistan’s western front.

All of these security challenges remain and will continue to pose a challenge for Pakistan and the United States. As Pakistan’s new leaders continue to negotiate power-sharing deals in forming a new government, the United States should strike the right balance in its approach to Pakistan. First, it should resist the temptation to meddle in these political negotiations. President Bush’s call to President Musharraf to affirm his administration’s support for the electorally weakened strongman is a step in the wrong direction.

In fact, the historic elections offer an opportunity to move beyond the Bush administration’s failed bilateral approach, which has been singularly focused on individual personalities and Pakistani leaders. Now is not the time to get enmeshed in the post-election political jockeying by trying to support one or several of the country’s newly elected leaders.

At the same time, though, the United States and the rest of the world need to maintain a close watch on security trends in the country. The current Army Chief of Staff, Ashfaq Kayani, has indicated a willingness to pursue operations against militants threatening the integrity of the Pakistani state, including Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The country’s political parties—all of which have suffered attacks on their members by militants—are not blind to this threat. We should encourage them to confront it, for their security and ours.

The Pakistani political environment, however, is now much more complex as new centers of political power emerge through the electoral process. The ability of President Musharraf to control the system diminishes, and with it the ability of the United States to rely on a single exclusive interlocutor there. In developing a new strategy for Pakistan, the United States needs to broaden its contacts with Pakistani institutions, including the Pakistani Army and Inter-Services Intelligence, as well as the judiciary and the newly elected Pakistani parliament.

Negotiations with a newly multipolar Pakistan will not be easy. But the participation of all of Pakistan’s political stakeholders is critical for success against the serious security challenges that threaten the region and the world.

Read Caroline Wadhams and Brian Katulis’ previous dispatches from Pakistan: