AFP : More gains expected in anti-terror drive in post-Musharraf era

Monday, August 18, 2008

More gains expected in anti-terror drive in post-Musharraf era

August 18, 2008

WASHINGTON (AFP) — With Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf gone, Washington must work with Islamabad's democratically elected government to wage the "war on terror" -- a task US experts say may be more challenging but could reap better results.

In fact, Washington moved beyond Musharraf in the wake of the free elections in February when it realized that the former army general who seized power in a 1999 coup was no longer the central player he had been.

But the fledgling coalition government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has seemed powerless to act against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which regrouped inside Pakistan after they were expelled from Afghanistan by a US-led invasion in 2001.

Reacting to Musharraf's resignation Monday, the White House said US President George W. Bush would keep working with Islamabad and was committed to a "strong Pakistan" that continued to strengthen democracy and fight terror.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Musharraf "one of the world's most committed partners in the war against terrorism and extremism."

But some US experts said that Musharraf, who ruled with almost unfettered power during most of his tenure, played a double game and was not a genuine US war-on-terror partner despite more than 10 billion dollars in US aid to his country.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, Al-Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan grew rapidly under Musharraf's watch, they said.

"In theory, working with an unruly, fractious coalition government is more difficult than working with someone who has most of the power in his own hands," said Robert Hathaway of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"But the problem with the theory in this case is that it never worked very well with Musharraf," he said.

"Musharraf worked with us when it suited his interest and to the extent it suited his interest, but I think most of us feel that our partnership with Musharraf did not produce the fruits that we had hoped for."

Although cooperation between Washington and Islamabad has not been very satisfactory with the new government, Hathaway felt Musharraf's departure would enable both sides to "focus their collective minds on the major problems challenging both countries."

It can also help erase a growing perception that Washington was trying to dictate anti-terrorism policy to the new government, experts said.

"What it will do is to remove the automatic link in the Pakistani mind that any actions which are taken in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and in the frontier generally are American-dictated," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan intelligence analyst at the US State Department.

"Weakening that link means that decisions that Pakistan's going to take are in its own interest," he said. "So, if it moves more aggressively, it wouldn't be automatically seen as simply carrying out American command."

One reason for Musharraf's unpopularity had been the perception that he allowed Washington to violate Pakistani sovereignty while simultaneously letting the northwestern provinces bordering Afghanistan where Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces hide spin out of control, said US think tank Stratfor.

Washington has staged missile strikes on terrorist haunts in the region, drawing protests from Islamabad.

Some experts say the new Pakistani government seems to lack control over the military or the powerful intelligence service, ISI, which was linked to a July suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

Unless Washington can trust Islamabad with critical intelligence information on militant movements, counter-terrorism cooperation will not reach the expected level, they warned.

"Intelligence sharing is going to be important," Weinbaum said. "The question is whether there is a serious effort here to break the ties within the Pakistan military with at least some of the extremists."

Pakistan has overtaken Iraq as a key concern among US foreign policy elites, with a majority believing it is the country most likely to pass nuclear technology to terrorists, an annual survey showed in Washington Monday.

Pakistan was named by more than half of the 100-odd foreign policy experts surveyed by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress as the country most likely to become the next Al-Qaeda stronghold, up from 35 percent last year.