WSJ : Killing of Militant Shows Cementing U.S.-Pakistan Ties

Friday, August 14, 2009

Killing of Militant Shows Cementing U.S.-Pakistan Ties

By GERALD F. SEIB | August 14, 2009

The headlines a few days ago told a seemingly simple story, of a missile strike launched from an American drone that killed Pakistan's top Taliban leader.

But that missile strike, in Pakistan's remote South Waziristan province, did more than kill one terrorist thug, a man named Baitullah Mehsud. The attack may well have cemented a much tighter U.S.-Pakistani bond in the broader fight against Islamic extremism.

If so, that represents a significant development and quite a change from just a few months ago. At that time, it was easy to cruise around Washington and find U.S. officials who would complain that Pakistani officials weren't taking the threat they faced from the Taliban seriously enough and were balking at real cooperation with the U.S. in fighting it.

In one of the big and underappreciated stories of the year, that has turned around. Starting early this year, there was a marked pickup in an officially unacknowledged program in which Pakistani and American intelligence officials cooperate to pinpoint Taliban and al Qaeda leaders and strongholds, then strike at them from unmanned Predator drones under American control.

One by one, the U.S. and Pakistan, in this new partnership, have been seeking out a list of some 20 high-value al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. More than half of them now have been killed or captured.

The strike against Mr. Mehsud illustrates how far the program has come and may open the way for deeper cooperation. (Some Taliban spokesmen have insisted since that Mr. Mehsud wasn't actually killed in the strike, but both U.S. and Pakistani officials are confident he was.)

Indeed, a similar missile strike in the same region was launched Tuesday, reportedly targeting another Taliban compound.

For their part, American officials describe the strike as a sign of much better cooperation between two intelligence agencies, Pakistan's ISI security services and America's Central Intelligence Agency. Those two have tended to view each other with a healthy degree of mutual suspicion.

The CIA has long thought the ISI harbored agents sympathetic with Islamic extremists. The ISI viewed the CIA as an organization with too little appreciation for the nuances of the fight against Islamic extremism.

But the combination of a new Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, and a new Pakistani army chief of staff, Ashfaq Kayani, has changed the atmosphere.

Despite deep initial American doubts about Mr. Zardari's commitment and courage, and uncertainty about the attitude of Mr. Kayani, they have cleared the way for greater, if still-quiet, cooperation.

U.S. officials say that intelligence on the whereabouts of extremist leaders increasingly is shared in real time and that a system for making decisions on when to strike them has become sleeker.

Pakistan often condemns American airstrikes in public, to deflect charges that it is allowing U.S. forces free rein, but the pattern of attacks in the past six months bespeaks a high level of cooperation, which pleases the Obama administration.

More important, though, may be the effect the Mehsud attack has on Pakistani attitudes.

Previously, Pakistani officials suspected that their American partners were far more interested in hunting for targets of concern to the U.S. -- principally al Qaeda leaders and the camps they used to plot attacks on American targets in neighboring Afghanistan -- rather than those Pakistani officials viewed as most directly threatening them.

Mr. Mehsud, though, was the terrorist leader at the top of Pakistan's most-wanted list; he was, after all, thought to be behind the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Hence, the complex effort to track him down and take him out had more to do with eliminating a threat to Pakistan's government than with making the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan easier.

As a result, this attack, unlike many other Predator strikes, was met with general public approval in Pakistan. Now one Pakistani official says it will open "a new era of trust between the two intelligence services."

We'll have to see, of course, and suspicions about motives and intentions on both sides won't go away overnight or because of one success.

There also are some analysts who think the Predator strikes, by arousing anger among Pakistanis sympathetic to the Taliban and antagonistic toward the U.S., may do as much long-term harm as good.

Still, U.S. officials consider the strike both a milestone in its own right, as well as an event that might have a positive spillover on the effort to stabilize Afghanistan next door.

While Mr. Mehsud was principally focused on making trouble in Pakistan, he had experience fighting in Afghanistan as well, and he had a network of supporters there.

Perhaps more important, U.S. officials think he was instrumental in facilitating cross-border traffic between Taliban groups on both sides of the border and also helped al Qaeda fighters move back and forth.

To the extent the Mehsud organization now is disrupted or locked in a succession struggle, that can't be bad for U.S. efforts.

More broadly, while Pakistan remains a nation with deep problems, and one facing manifold threats, a simple missile strike has offered at least a glimmer of good news, for Pakistani officials and for America's own long struggle in the region..

Write to Gerald F. Seib at