Pakistan On The Brink

islamabadmarriot.JPGWhile Americans wait to see if our financial systems are going to melt down, a story that is getting far too little attention is the dangerously deteriorating situation in Pakistan, an important U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. Specifically, real questions now exist as to whether Pakistan can still be considered a U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. This is a critical issue for tonight’s debate and may be the most important national security item for the next president.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that “Pakistani troops and a U.S.-Afghan ground patrol exchanged fire near a frontier checkpoint… in a new heightening of armed tension between allies in the war against Taliban insurgents”:

According to the U.S. Central Command, the incident began when Pakistani troops at the checkpoint opened fire on two small American helicopters that were providing air support to the U.S.-Afghan unit while it was on patrol near the border. In response, Americans in the patrol fired shots into a hillside on which the checkpoint stood. Pakistani forces then fired on the patrol.

In an excellent article on the current situation, Dexter Filkins described a similar firefight in which U.S. forces out hunting the Taliban called in airstrikes after taking fire near the Pakistan border, resulting in the deaths of 11 Pakistani border guards.

Writing that Pakistan’s tribal areas “have become an untouchable base for Islamic militants to attack Americans and Afghans across the border,” Filkins suggests that the central question is “whether Pakistan really wants to control the Talibs and their Qaeda allies ensconced in the tribal areas — and whether it really can”:

This was not supposed to be a major worry. After the attacks of Sept. 11, President Pervez Musharraf threw his lot in with the United States. Pakistan has helped track down Al Qaeda suspects, launched a series of attacks against militants inside the tribal areas — a new offensive got under way just weeks ago — and given many assurances of devotion to the antiterrorist cause. For such efforts, Musharraf and the Pakistani government have been paid handsomely, receiving more than $10 billion in American money since 2001.

But as the incident on the Afghan border suggests, little in Pakistan is what it appears. For years, the survival of Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders has depended on a double game: assuring the United States that they were vigorously repressing Islamic militants — and in some cases actually doing so — while simultaneously tolerating and assisting the same militants.

On Tuesday, the Navy Times revealed that “Pakistani military forces flew repeated helicopter missions into Afghanistan to resupply the Taliban during a fierce battle in June 2007″:

The revelation by Lt. Col. Chris Nash, who commanded an embedded training team in eastern Afghanistan from June 2007 to March 2008[…]

Pakistani forces were flying cross-border missions…to resupply a “base camp” in Nangarhar Province occupied by fighters from the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Nash told Army Times in a Sept. 17 telephone interview.

Caroline Wadhams, a security analyst at the Center for American Progress, discusses the recent bombing of the Marriot in Islamabad, and the deepening crisis in Pakistan. Watch it:

As to how this situation was allowed to deteriorate, the diversion of U.S. resources and attention to Iraq obviously played a big part. But the sad truth is that the Republican-controlled Congress just doesn’t seem to have been that interested. CAP’s Colin Cookman noted in a recent article that “from 2005 to 2006, the 109th Congress managed to hold just one single hearing on Pakistan in all the armed services, foreign affairs, intelligence and oversight committees of both the House and Senate combined. Under Democratic leadership, the 110th Congress has to date held at least 16 congressional hearings on Pakistan alone.”

The July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (pdf) essentially concluded that Pakistan had become the new Afghanistan:

We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qa’ida senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al-Qa’ida will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.

The new Afghanistan, that is, except with a nuke.