Wednesday, May. 06, 2009

Turning to Pakistan

Tanks Rumbling North from Islamabad toward the Swat Valley, refugees fleeing in the opposite direction: from the TV footage, at least, it appears that the Pakistani military is finally taking the fight to the Taliban. It was probably no coincidence that the assault began as Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari arrived in Washington for a summit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Barack Obama. Zardari brought a long wish list: he wants aid, military hardware and training.

The U.S. is still fighting two unfinished wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and trying to avoid another one, with Iran. But Pakistan — a country that has nuclear weapons and is falling into chaos — is becoming the Obama Administration's biggest foreign policy challenge. Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Congress that the Pakistani President "should be treated as the leader of a country who vitally needs our support and whose success is vitally related to American interests."

But there is skepticism. Pakistani leaders have passed the hat before, yet little of the $10 billion in U.S. military aid sent to Islamabad since 9/11 has been used to fight the extremists. Previous military operations have ended with peace deals that gave Pakistan's militants larger, safer sanctuaries. Some members of Congress are asking quite why — given all that U.S. aid — the Pakistani army has found it so hard to defeat the militants.

For that reason, Zardari's biggest takeaway from his trip may be the realization that he can't rely exclusively on a sympathetic White House to loosen the purse strings. Pakistan was once a country that most in the U.S. knew little about. But the more Americans learn about it, the less likely they are to think that all there is rosy. It will take more than TV footage for Zardari to convince Congress — and public opinion — that his country deserves the assistance he seeks.