March 3, 2006

President Bush in Pakistan - Why?

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf with President Bush (2004)

President Bush is completing a trip to south Asia with an overnight stop in Islamabad, Pakistan. Having previously stopped in Afghanistan and India, it makes sense that he would stop to pay a courtesy visit on Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf has become one of America's best allies in the war on terror.

What does the American president hope to accomplish during this visit? Although it may show the rest of the world that Bush respects Musharraf, it certainly does nothing for Musharraf internally. Musharraf is not popular in the country, nor is his policy shift towards the United States in the aftermath of the Al-Qa'idah attacks in 2001. Those who support Musharraf will continue to support him; those who don't will continue to oppose him.

Pakistan has been a good ally since 2001. The United States would have been hard-pressed to mount offensive operations against the Taliban and Al-Qa'idah in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom without Pakistan's permission to use its airspace and access to Pakistani airfields.

That said, Bush will raise a few issues about the hunt for Al-Qa'idah (especially for Usamah Bin Ladin and Ayman Az-Zawahri) and the Taliban. Last week, Afghan president Hamid Karzai provided a list to Musharraf of known Taliban and Al-Qa'idah members believed to be in the Waziristan area of Pakistan. However, increased Pakistani offensive military activity against Al-Qa'idah and Taliban members in the Waziristan border area is problematic for Musharraf.

First, the area is legally a "tribal administered area" with some official autonomy from the government in Islamabad, and the Pakistani army does not normally operate in this area - there are tribal units that handle security. In response to U.S. pressure, the Pakistani army moved into Waziristan in 2004 and 2005 to engage Taliban and Al-Qa'idah members. As was expected, the locals rallied around the Taliban, since the Taliban were mostly recruited from the same Pushtun tribes in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. The locals also protected the Al-Qa'idah members as they are considered "guests" (and many have married local women).

Second, many members of the Pakistani military officer corps and the intelligence service, are sympathetic to Al-Qa'idah (and Usamah Bin Ladin) and especially the Taliban, which the intelligence service, the Interservices Intelligence Directorate, helped create. Musharraf has survived several assassination attempts, some that have the mark of trained intelligence professionals. As I have said before, we are one bullet away from a radical Islamic state with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Hopefully, Pakistan will be able to conduct increased operations in the Waziristan area to complement American and Afghan operations on the opposite side, trapping the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qa'idah between them. If not, the trip is merely cosmetic. Since he visited the two other countries, it would have been undiplomatic to ignore Pakistan.