A drive by the US to force Pakistan to crack down on al-Qaeda and the Taliban has failed to meet Washington’s expectations, top officials in the Obama administration have acknowledged.
Although the US hails the Pakistani army’s recent offensives against home-grown insurgents in South Waziristan and the Swat valley, Washington would like Islamabad to carry out similar action on its territory against the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But a series of recent trips by US officials to Pakistan – including General David Petraeus, the head of US central command, and James Jones, national security adviser – failed to secure as much co-operation as Washington wanted.
This week, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, was urged “to take stock of Pakistan’s own limitations” in stepping up the hunt for Islamist militants and to “stop making unrealistic demands”, a senior Pakistani official said after Admiral Mullen met Asif Ali Zardari, president, and General Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief.
For months, US officials have pushed Pakistan to extend its campaign against domestic insurgents to groups active elsewhere, notably the one led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a militant the US identifies as one of its top foes in Afghanistan.
While western officials say Mr Haqqani remains at large in Pakistan’s border region, Pakistani officials deny such claims. Last week, a Pakistani security official complained that the US intelligence shared with Pakistan on the movement of militants including Mr Haqqani “is often up to two days old and just not actionable”.
Appearing on MSNBC this week, Joe Biden, US vice-president, said: “Are they [Pakistan] doing enough? No, but it’s amazing how reality has a way of intruding on people’s plans. When [the insurgents] went and took the Swat valley, all of a sudden the Pakistanis went, ‘whoa, they’re 60 [kilometres] from Islamabad’.” He predicted that over the next two years Washington would provide “more direct assistance to Pakistan as it relates to stabilising their economy, building their infrastructure, as well as getting them to move on our mutual interest, which includes the Haqqani network and includes the Taliban in Pakistan”.
In an allusion to the difficulty of convincing Islamabad, Mr Biden added: “But this is a hell of a process.”
Traditionally, elements of the Pakistani intelligence services have maintained relations with the Taliban as a source of influence over Afghanistan and a counterweight to India’s regional role.
In addition, the main US push to recast relations with Pakistan – a five-year, $7.5bn aid programme recently approved by Congress – has had to struggle against suspicions among Pakistan’s powerful military about accompanying conditions. The legislation requires the US to report on Pakistan’s action against militants, its military’s respect for civilian institutions and its efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Strains in relations have been reflected in the increasing difficulty the US embassy in Islamabad is having in obtaining or extending visas for its staff.
A US embassy official said Pakistan had yet to grant visa extensions for 135 staff and that it had become harder to obtain visas for new staff.
In a recent conversation with reporters, a top US military official added that, although Washington was not yet satisfied with Pakistani action against the Afghan Taliban, the US could succeed in Afghanistan without a complete crackdown in Pakistan.
“I believe the Afghan Taliban can be defeated really by denying them Afghanistan,” he said.
“Most of the Afghan Taliban are Afghans and therefore the great mass of them don’t go to and from Pakistan.”
He added that the weaker the Afghan Taliban became the less tolerant Pakistan would be towards it, since the group would then represent both less of a threat and be less useful as potential leverage against India.
Nevertheless, Barack Obama, US president, has set the top priority as the battle against al-Qaeda, not the Taliban – despite his decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.
Perhaps the chief weapon in the fight has been the use of drone attacks against the leaders of al-Qaeda, using unmanned vehicles that take off from CIA bases in Pakistan and are piloted remotely from the US.
Mr Obama has greatly stepped up such attacks, as he promised to do during his campaign for the presidency, and his administration has claimed to have killed top al-Qaeda leaders, most recently last week.
But the US would like to expand such strikes still further, despite Pakistani resistance. The drone strikes are unpopular within Pakistan itself and are blamed for civilian casualties, despite CIA assurances that its methods are efficient.
Additional reporting by Matthew Green