Pakistan: Can America square the circle?

February 20, 2008

Scanning the U.S. media for reaction to the Pakistan election, two themes stand out.  One is a U.S. desire to reach out to the newly elected political leaders in Pakistan and bolster a return to civilian-led democracy. The other is the U.S. need to shore up the battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban – even if it means pursuing them aggressively inside Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas.  One may turn out to contradict the other.

The New York Times says in an op-ed that the United States must invest in Pakistan’s people – its schools, courts and political parties — to build popular support for tackling al Qaeda and the Taliban.  Reuters Washington-based Asia Correspondent Paul Eckert quotes Barack Obama, among others, as saying a democratic Pakistan will make “a better ally in the fight against terror and extremism.”

Compare that to a piece in the Washington Post about a missile strike by a CIA-operated Predator drone that killed a senior al Qaeda commander inside Pakistan last month.  ”Having requested the Pakistani government’s official permission for such strikes on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval,” it says. Significantly, it adds that  this could be a model for future U.S. operations.

Attacks by Predator drones are already highly controversial in Pakistan. So how does the United States build ties with democratically elected allies in Pakistan if it is also launching missile strikes on Pakistani soil without asking permission from those same allies? It seems hard to believe that either the government or the army would welcome unilateral U.S. action. So how will Washington square the circle? 



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