Vice President Dick Cheney has concluded a secret mission to Pakistan to express the Bush administration’s impatience and frustration at lagging efforts to crack down on stepped-up Taliban and al Qaeda activity along the Afghan border.
Cheney got a firsthand experience on how unsettled the region still is when the following day in Afghanistan a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the main gate of the U.S. base where the vice president was staying.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was an ally of convenience following 9/11, and at the outset not a bad one. He rounded up suspected terrorists and cooperated with U.S.-led efforts to overthrow the Taliban, who held power with support from elements in the Pakistani military and secret services.
In a critical early mistake, the United States failed to prevent the defeated Taliban and their al Qaeda allies from fleeing into Pakistan’s mountainous frontier provinces where the government in Islamabad exerts only nominal control.
After several costly efforts to stop local tribes from sheltering the Islamic militants, Musharraf’s government reached a peace agreement with tribal leaders. But the United States has come to believe that the agreement only bought time for the Taliban and al Qaeda to regroup for what is thought to be an impending spring offensive.
And there is another problem with Musharraf. He seized power from an elected government and promised a quick return to democracy, but then declared himself president. Despite U.S. requests that he hold free and fair elections, Musharraf is making plans to stay in power.
Musharraf walks a tightrope between Pakistan’s secular and largely pro-Western democrats and his own Islamic fundamentalists who sympathize with the Taliban’s brand of zealotry.
Washington’s best, maybe its last, lever is money. The Bush administration has given the Musharraf regime about $10 billion over five years and is planning on another $785 million next year.
Democrats want to condition that aid on Pakistan’s stopping crossborder raids and preventing the Taliban from operating in Pakistan. If Cheney’s persuasion doesn’t work, that may be the way to go. We’ll know this spring.