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U.S.-Pakistan Relations Enter New Phase

Democrats in the United States Senate sent a letter to President George W. Bush recently, calling for a refocusing of the nation's counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The opposition Democrats say that over-emphasis on Iraq has allowed Islamic extremists to regroup along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Meanwhile, Pakistan's new prime minister vows that fighting terrorism will be his government's top priority.

Pakistan's Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, says fighting terrorism will be his government's top priority. But he says the use of military force alone -- a policy pursued by President Pervez Musharraf -- is not the answer. Mr. Gilani, who has been meeting with Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani to discuss the situation in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, says leveraging force with peace talks and aid programs would be more effective.

A "Clear and Present Danger"

Here in Washington, CIA Director Michael Hayden says al-Qaida terrorists are entrenched along that border, posing a "clear and present danger" to the region and the United States. "It's very clear to us that al-Qaida has been able, over the past 18 months or so, to establish a safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area that they have not enjoyed before, that they are bringing operatives into that region for training," says Hayden.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan William Milam emphasizes that these militants also pose a major threat to the new government in Islamabad. Milam says, "This has been a serious concerted attempt to erode the will and the writ of the state of Pakistan. So the Pakistanis, I am sure this government will find this just as serious a problem, maybe more so than the last one [i.e., the last Pakistan government]."

Another American analyst, Lisa Curtis of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, praises Pakistan's coalition government for pursing parliamentary debate on the issue -- something, she says, President Pervez Musharraf never allowed. She says it is a very positive development. According to Curtis, "The Pakistani people need to buy into the plan to defeat the terrorists in Pakistan. But at the same time, it is an international threat. And this is something that Pakistan must realize and that's why there has to be joint cooperation -- the U.S. and Pakistan together, defeating this mutual threat."

But Curtis says February's parliamentary elections clearly demonstrated that the Pakistanis do not want to promote religious extremism in their country. "You have a clear statement by the people that they don't want this Talibanization of the region. So that is very powerful. And that provides an opportunity to isolate these extremist elements," says Curtis. "But I would argue that the civilian government has to work hand in hand with the military leadership. This may be difficult. But I think that the future stability of Pakistan rests on the civilians and the military working together."

Emphasis on Development

In recent months, Islamabad and Washington have emphasized the need for economic development in the tribal areas near the Afghan border. Lisa Curtis says that is crucial for Pakistanis. "Showing them there is a better life than supporting the terrorists and the extremists. It is also likely that military strikes against al-Qaida leaders will continue, particularly when there is good intelligence available," says Curtis.

Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani says that expanding education and development in the impoverished tribal belt should be a "key pillar" of his government's strategy against militant extremists.

Former U.S. Ambassador and South Asia scholar William Milam agrees. "We have got to -- 'we' meaning both the Pakistani government and ours [the U.S. government] -- have got to try to bring development writ large to this part of Pakistan. Better economic conditions and better social conditions, including much better education for both males and females. That is a long-term process. But it should have started, in fact, years ago. But it has got to start soon," says Milan.

The different militant groups operating along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border formed an umbrella organization late last year. The group known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is led by Baitullah Mehsud, who says his war is with the United States, not with Pakistan.

Pakistani scholar Haider Mullick says that while this organization has some moderate voices, it is angry over U.S. air attacks from Afghanistan against suspected Taliban and al-Qaida operatives. Mullick says Pakistan's new government has indicated that it will not allow the United States to continue these operations. "The Taliban are happy to see that the new government will change some of that and will talk to the moderate voices, with the understanding that some extremists of the extremists will have to be swiftly destroyed and their networks will have to be destroyed."

Mullick says Islamabad and Washington will have to win the trust of the people along the border region. He says the $750 million U.S. aid package for the tribal areas, which includes development assistance, can go a long way in achieving that.

"It also includes a training program for the Frontier Corps and the Pakistani special forces," says Mullick. "It is kind of a holistic aid package targeted, simply put, at winning the hearts and minds of the people of the FATA region and certain regions of the Frontier [Province]."

Mullick says the worst-case scenario for Pakistan's new government would be to wake up one day to find out that there was terrorist attack against the United States that could be traced to Pakistani extremists.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.