In a surprise move, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited Pakistan on his way to Kabul carrying a message from President George Bush that Islamabad will lose its financial aid if it cannot manage its border with Afghanistan. Increasing number of independent and government reports have lampooned Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's competence and ability to take on Al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists.
A recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) report warned of "hard-fighting" in the spring in Afghanistan's south and west where increased Taliban resurgence has been noticed. The NATO's International Security Assistance Force spokesperson warned that the Taliban's strategy will be to undermine Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. While the surge in violence usually follows the winter, this year has been interestingly preceded with increased narcotic cultivation and an estimated 6,000 fighters are hiding in tunnels to attack through suicide ambushes and roadside bombs. Taliban sources also promise "imminent" attack in lawless southern provinces that border Pakistan. Islamabad dismissed this report as "nonsense."
Washington is pressing all allies-including European, to do more to confront the Taliban. White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that the Afghan mission must succeed "so that Afghanistan does not become again a safe haven for terror or a center for narcotics trafficking" especially since the Afghan Government reportedly lost control of two district centers at Musa Qala in Halmand Province and briefly at Bakwa in Farah Province. While Musa Qala remains under rebel control, 160 Afghan police and soldiers assisted by 12 U.S. Special Forces personnel retook Bakwa but faced no resistance. This leads to questions as to why the militants took Bakwa in the first place only to give it up without a fight. Some say that the militants cannot stay and fight and excel only in hit and run tactics. Other theories center on probing strikes to see the responsiveness of coalition forces. It could also be a tactic that tries to stretch the coalition forces around from one town to another keeping them on endless pursuits and tension. This strategy was followed by Maratha hero Shivaji against the better armed and trained Mughal forces which led to the gradual weakening of the Mughal Army.
But most attention has been centered on Pakistan and the attention is now spinning from requesting more to Islamabad's ability to deal with the terrorists. The turnaround in perspective has been partially created by Pakistani politicians themselves. They have argued that they have deployed 80,000 troops on the border, withstood multiple assassination attempts on Musharraf, taken more casualties, and have more wounded soldiers than all allies put together. They even characterized U.S. official testimonies in Congress on al Qaeda presence in Pakistan as "absurd." By not being truthful that the troops have not been well deployed and in fact assist the Taliban to infiltrate into Afghanistan, Islamabad's brilliant tactics has failed in strategy and led to the impression that Musharraf is not competent to handle the Taliban.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been one of the harshest critics of Musharraf and repeated facilitative trips by U.S. officials have failed including the famous dinner meeting at the White House where Bush himself interceded. After making multiple excuses for Islamabad, the Bush Administration has come around a full circle to now demand action and results or else. The threat at this time was clearly the loss of financial aid that Islamabad needs desperately to stay afloat economically and also fund the expensive military, missile, and nuclear programs.
While Karzai has complained about the Taliban and the NATO warned against the resultant impact in Afghanistan, the U.S. has independently determined the increased al Qaeda activity in Pakistan. The U.S. takes the threat of al Qaeda is so seriously that it now says that it can destabilize Pakistan itself leading punch to a new realization that Islamabad may be losing control. As if to make a point, a Black Hawk helicopter circled Musharraf's official residence with snipers leading out. A New York Times report even quoted unnamed U.S. officials saying that Musharraf will be an "unusually tough message" about funding cuts unless al Qaeda operatives and cells are hunted and shut down and the only thing that matters are "results" and not "promises."
Already, the new Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress has already initiated legislation that would cut financial aid to Pakistan, which is the fifth largest recipient of aid, unless it delivers on terrorism and non-proliferation. Shocked by increased pressure from U.S. lawmakers delivered personally by U.S. Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Musharraf reluctantly acknowledged that some of his forces may have been turning a "blind eye" to some militia movement-- clearly, a diplomatically-nuanced climb-down from "nonsense" and "absurd."
Coincidentally, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was also in Pakistan just days after her nation promised 5,600 additional troops in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban in the south. Beckett again raised the resurgent and spiraling Taliban insurgency ratcheting up pressure on Musharraf. An official spokesperson for Pakistan said that Musharraf "called for a comprehensive strategy and economic reconstruction for effectively dealing with the militant activities in Afghanistan." The officialdom continues to downplay the context of this visit by stressing on "strategic partnership between the UK and Pakistan" and a British spokesperson softened the blow by also stressing on how this visit will "deepen this partnership."
Beckett will also meet North West Frontier Province (NWFP) Governor Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai in Peshawar and no doubt talk about his reported comments that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan was becoming a "liberation war." Karzai has been extremely harsh in his criticism of this attitude. It is hard to see how Britain can keep the pressure on Aurakzai and Musharraf if their spokespeople talking about deepening partnerships. The British Government is desperately trying to appear impartial to Muslims world-over to duck criticisms at home on how its officials are handling terror suspects within the U.K. To further this agenda, a British High Commission spokesperson in Islamabad was quoted saying that Beckett will deliver a speech in Islamabad that would take a "long view on the relationship between the Muslim world and the West."
Privately, Pakistan officials are more somber admitting that Beckett is "in the context of recent efforts by the international community to help Pakistan tackle the border regions and make a collective push against the Taliban spring offensive." Specifically, Western officials are very concerned about a dubious peace deal between Pakistan Army and the Taliban in North Waziristan located in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
While the conversations between Cheney and Musharraf and Beckett's message to Pakistan will be kept secret, it is clear that the West is focusing more on assessing Pakistan's competence rather than its willingness. One Indian newspaper editorially asked Islamabad which is worse-to be called unreliable or be called incompetent.