How Washington Will Measure Pakistan's Success

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Mohammad Sajjad / AP

Pakistani soldiers stand guard Sept. 16 near a food-distribution point in the town of Kandaro

When President Obama laid out his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy in March, he vowed to "not blindly stay the course." Instead, a series of metrics would be set out to measure progress. Last week, the Obama Administration issued a draft of those metrics to Congress. Where Pakistan is concerned, the goals center on disrupting international terrorist networks, developing the military's counterinsurgency capabilities, helping to enhance civilian control and building a global consensus on stabilizing the country. The first of what will become regular assessments will be drafted at the end of March 2010. But in the six months between now and then, Washington has a lot of work to do to get Pakistan to measure up to the metrics. Here is how things stand:

In terms of disrupting terror networks, there have been notable successes in Pakistan's tribal badlands. Straddling the Afghan border, this region has long been notorious as a base for al-Qaeda, Taliban and foreign fighters who threaten both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is from here that Western governments fear that the next 9/11-style attack could emanate unless action is taken. Over the past year, Washington has intensified CIA-operated drone strikes — yielding a flurry of successes. Air strikes may have killed two prominent al-Qaeda commanders over the past fortnight. If confirmed, the deaths would be further blows to the terrorist group. Last month, Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban and a key al-Qaeda ally, was killed in a remote part of South Waziristan. Mehsud's death has sown discord among his followers, with the new leader struggling to maintain control of the increasingly fractious alliance. The tribal areas "can no longer be described as a safe haven," says a senior Western diplomat with approval.

But the follow-through has been a problem. Washington has yet to persuade Pakistan's military leadership of the need to take on what remains of the Mehsud network. While it continues to pound the area with air strikes, the Pakistan military is reluctant to mount a ground offensive in South Waziristan, citing the hazardous terrain. And in North Waziristan, Pakistan appears unwilling to confront the Haqqani network and other militants who mount cross-border attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Instead, it has focused on militants who challenge its own authority in Pakistan.

Getting Pakistan to see both groups of militants — those who fight chiefly in Pakistan and those who fight chiefly in Afghanistan — as a common threat will test Obama's gifts of persuasion. The gap over perceptions and priorities could be narrowed with enhanced support for Pakistan's counterinsurgency capability. Organized to fight a different kind of war on a different border, the Pakistan Army is poorly equipped and trained for offensives against hardened guerillas, especially on terrain that favors the enemy's methods.

Still, when set against the doomsday scenarios being painted six months ago, when terrorist attacks frequently struck major cities and the Taliban had advanced to within 70 miles of Islamabad, Pakistan's offensive in the Swat Valley is cause for moderate optimism — and it has been a popular success. But, as fighting continues in pockets and key leaders remain at large, it remains to be seen whether Pakistan can hold on to territory and see through a reconstruction effort.

"What Pakistan needs is enhanced support for communications, observation and helicopter fighting capability," says a Pakistani military official. Pakistan also covets night-vision goggles — a controversial demand given the risk that the militants could seize them through ambushes. In other areas, however, the Pakistan army has spurned counterinsurgency support. U.S. military experts are not allowed to directly train Pakistani troops engaged in counterinsurgency operations and are limited to training trainers.

By contrast, the civilian government has been more open. "They have made the offer, and some of our law-enforcement agencies are receiving training from the Americans," Interior Minister Rehman Malik tells TIME. Still, Malik says, "we need all sorts of capacity-building equipment, the list is long." Some leading analysts argue that the U.S. has focused too narrowly on the army to the neglect of the police's counterterrorism abilities — which could prove crucial in thwarting bombings, like the one that struck a crowded marketplace in Kohat on Sept. 18, killing 40.

The most difficult task for Washington will be boosting the weak and unpopular civilian government, especially in its control over the military. Dire economic conditions have improved over the past year through international assistance. An enhanced $11.3 billion International Monetary Fund rescue package has helped dampen inflation overall, but there is public outrage at wheat and sugar shortages. A further $5.5 billion is on the way through pledges made by the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, a consortium of allies, which will meet in New York next week with Obama, President Asif Ali Zardari and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in attendance. In terms of metrics, achieving global consensus that Pakistan must be stabilized is an easy goal to reach. Making something of the consensus, however, requires more cash and development thrown in the right direction.

The U.S. Congress is also working through a bill that would deliver an unprecedented $1.5 billion a year of nonmilitary aid. The money will help support Pakistan's deeply neglected education and social sectors. (At the moment, the country only spends 2.5% of its GDP on health and education combined.) Pakistan also faces chronic electricity shortages. On his last visit, Richard Holbrooke, the Obama Administration's envoy to the region, pledged support. But that effort, along with proposals for a gas pipeline from Iran and Chinese-funded nuclear-energy reactors, will not bear fruit for some time.

Patience will also be needed in any attempt to boost civilian control over Pakistan's all-powerful military. Although on paper Zardari is the "supreme commander of the armed forces" and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency reports to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, these are what one senior Western diplomat describes as "constitutional fictions." Under General Ashfaq Kayani, the army has resisted intervening directly in politics, but has repeatedly asserted its clout through backstage maneuvers.

An attempt to bring the ISI firmly under civilian control swiftly backfired last year, while army pressure earlier this year was behind the sacking of the national security adviser and crucial to the reinstatement of the deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court. More troubling for Washington is that Zardari's approval ratings have plummeted over the past year, to just 32%, according to the most charitable poll, matching President Pervez Musharraf's levels in his final months. "The general view is that the government is not batting for the country," says Aasiya Riaz, a political analyst. As his own aides admit, Zardari suffers an "image problem" because of the stains of old corruption allegations — which he denies. By contrast, the army's much damaged public image under Musharraf has improved since mounting the Swat offensive.

In such circumstances, the army is scarcely likely to cede what it has traditionally seen as its prerogatives, namely, directing foreign and defense policy. Already moves by Zardari to draw closer to Kabul and New Delhi have encountered resistance. For the Pakistan Army, India remains the principal enemy. That view is likely to remain unshaken as long as it perceives threats from the eastern border and Indian influence in Afghanistan.

For the moment, a delicate power balance holds in Islamabad. Whatever its gripes, the army is not in a position to grab power. As a recent poll revealed, a surprising majority still favors a dysfunctional democracy over military rule. The popular opposition is restive but seems prepared to wait its turn. Zardari may just yet become the first civilian leader to complete a full term. But that, as officials in Washington likely realize, depends very much on Zardari himself.