Pakistan’s Dilemma

Last month, James Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, reportedly warned Pakistani officials that the US would escalate attacks against militants in Pakistan if the Pakistani government does not do more to combat them.  The escalation would entail expanding drone strikes into Baluchistan, which is outside the tribal areas where the bombing campaign has been confined to, and launching more cross-border raids by special operations forces.  Leaders of Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network are based in the tribal regions of Waziristan, and Taliban leaders are believed to be in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province.

The threat of an intensified American campaign poses a dilemma for the Pakistani government.  On one hand, it does not want to sustain high casualties in an offensive against militants who would likely retaliate by bombing civilians and government facilities, nor does it want to alienate Taliban leaders in case they come back into power in Afghanistan.  On the other hand, refusing to act and inviting more American attacks in Pakistan would be problematic because the incursions would likely be perceived as violations of national sovereignty by army leaders and the Pakistani public, a perception which could arouse intense opposition to the weak civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari and threaten his hold on power.

The US also faces a dilemma with regard to Pakistan.  America wants to attack Afghan insurgents and Al Qaeda terrorists based there, but it also fears instability in a country that has nuclear weapons and many Islamic extremists.  If the Taliban and other militant groups continue to have a safe haven in Pakistan it will be extremely difficult for the US to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan, where the US has been fighting since 2001.  But destabilizing Pakistan would be a strategic disaster that might be worse than allowing the Taliban to take over large swathes of Afghanistan.  The prospect that drone strikes will cause civilian casualties and anger some Pakistanis enough to join anti-American militant groups also complicates the US decision calculus, although the Obama administration appears to have decided that the benefits of the Predator campaign outweigh the risks.

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