ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A nearly completed U.S. military study is expected to say that nuclear-armed Pakistan, not Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran, is the most urgent foreign policy challenge facing President Barack Obama.
Pakistan – convulsed by a growing al-Qaida-backed insurgency, hamstrung by a ruinous economy and run by an unpopular government that’s paralyzed by infighting and indecision – is critical to U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, thwart the spread of nuclear weapons and prevent tensions with neighboring India from escalating into a nuclear showdown.
The U.S. Central Command review is assessing the situation in the Middle East and South Asia as the Obama administration plans to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq and double the 30,000-strong American military presence in Afghanistan, several people involved in the study told McClatchy Newspapers. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the study is still under way and they weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly.
The assessment, they said, is expected to recommend major changes in the U.S. approach to the volatile region, including major increases in U.S. aid to Pakistan in areas such as public education, health care and good governance, in a bid to stem the poverty and illiteracy that help fuel the country’s Islamic insurgency.
Stepped up non-military aid also could ease popular anger at the government and its chief ally, the United States, which many Pakistanis accuse of stoking the insurgency by relying primarily on military offensives and missile strikes that have claimed numerous civilian lives, the officials said.
Such recommendations are consistent with an administration plan championed by Vice President Joe Biden to give Pakistan $15 billion in non-military aid over the next 10 years. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. has given Pakistan more than $7 billion in military assistance and $3 billion in non-military aid.
The administration’s plan would condition new military assistance on the Pakistani army’s cooperation in curbing the insurgency and eliminating the refuges in the remote Afghan border region that the Taliban use to attack U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and al-Qaida uses to train terrorists and plot new strikes on U.S. and other Western targets.
However, crafting a new U.S. policy on Pakistan is likely to be a daunting task for Obama and his special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, who’s to make his first visit to the region this week.
“This will be a major policy challenge,” warned Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who served as the top U.S. intelligence analyst on the region. “The situation is in flux.”
Pakistan is slipping deeper by the day into political, economic, ethnic and religious chaos.
The Pakistani Taliban control most of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and have seized Swat, a valley 100 miles from Islamabad. Electricity and food shortages have sparked unrest and stalled industrial production, and the stock market has dropped more than 60 percent while the Pakistani rupee has fallen 30 percent against the dollar in the past year.
Meanwhile, the coalition government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, mired in infighting and incompetence, has failed to unite around a strategy to contain the crisis, and some U.S. and Pakistani experts warn that there’s a growing danger that Pakistan could have its fifth military coup since it won its independence from Britain in 1947.