The Pakistani Elephant in the Room

What President Obama didn't say about the other South Asian country where we're at war

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Reuters


In his speech Wednesday night announcing the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Obama mentioned only three times the country that, in a November 2009 Oval Office meeting, he said was the source of the "cancer" that had spread into the Afghan war: Pakistan. Though the U.S. has spent much of the last year expanding its assault on the Taliban across the border into Pakistan, sending drones and special forces teams against the militants based there (recently, Osama bin Laden, who appeared to be living in relative comfort with support from Pakistani military elements), Obama took a slightly softer tone toward this ostensible U.S. ally.

Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan. No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am President, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.

Since escalating the war in Afghanistan, violence against the U.S. has increasingly come from across the border in Pakistan, where many militant groups are based, supported and at times outright shielded by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a powerful branch of the military. Because the U.S. cannot send its troops en masse into Pakistan where the "cancer" is, and because increasing its fighting in Afghanistan only seems to provoke further militancy in Pakistan, Obama was faced with a dilemma: how to combat Pakistani militancy without simply making the problem worse. His only hard words for Pakistan -- a warning that he "will never tolerate a safe-haven" -- seem to suggest that, even though the war will be winding down, the drone strikes and special forces raids into Pakistan's many safe havens will not.

As counterterrorism expert and former Obama administration adviser Bruce Reidel put it to the New York Times after bin Laden's death, his discovery  "demonstrated more vividly than ever is that we need a base to strike targets in Pakistan, and the geography is simple: You need to do that from Afghanistan." The Obama administration's recent shake-up of national security staff, putting Afghan war leader General David Petraeus in charge of the CIA and Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta at the Pentagon, suggest that even if Obama is ending the war, he is not planning for peace in South Asia. The quiet war against Pakistani militants and rogue ISI elements has escalated rapidly under his guidance, establishing a not-quite-CIA, not-quite-military clandestine campaign that shows no signs of waning.

As Obama noted, neither the Pakistani nation as a whole nor the Pakistani people are threats or enemies to the U.S. But an anti-American trend has grown in Pakistan in recent years; as the war has escalated, so have U.S. drone and special forces strikes inside of Pakistan, something that enrages many citizens of a country that has been unusually nationalist and concerned about territorial sovereignty ever since splitting with India in 1947. Earlier this week, Pakistani member of Parliament Marvi Memon resigned, publicly listing as one of her reasons the fact that the Pakistani military had not declared open war against the U.S. and other NATO forces:

To be associated with a government, which has not followed parliament's joint resolution mandating action against NATO forces in case of drones, has bartered Pakistan's sovereignty, has not protected Pakistan's sensitive locations, has not kept our territory protected from foreign forces, would be a travesty.

A Pew survey taken after bin Laden's killing found that 69 percent of Pakistanis see the U.S. as "more of an enemy," with only 6 percent calling the country that largely funds Pakistan's military "more of a partner." But militant groups are also unpopular, if less so: 55 percent view al-Qaeda unfavorably, 63 percent say the same about the Taliban. Only Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian terrorist group, scrapes by with 37 percent unfavorability. The only two things that Pakistanis seem unified and certain about is that they like the military, which enjoys 79 percent approval, and fear India, which 57 percent call the greatest threat to India (three times the response rate for the second most popular choice, the Taliban). 

Pakistanis are also getting understandably tired of their country's costly war against militants, much as the Obama administration seems to be tiring of a 100,000-plus-troop war in Afghanistan that has done little to erode the Taliban's hold or to remove the safe havens in Pakistan. By withdrawing much of the massive and and disruptive American presence from Afghanistan, the U.S. will be less of an irritant to the Pakistanis who are increasingly unhappy with our presence. But the long war against militants in both countries appears nowhere near a de-escalation.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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