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Pakistan Faces Security Challenges

The recent resignation of Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, has raised many questions about the country's future policies. And for some observers, the August 21 double suicide bombing near Islamabad is a tragic reminder that, in security terms, the country's new leaders have little time to settle into their jobs.

For Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, there was little doubt about the meaning of the bombings. "You know, we've said for some time that the new government needs to understand the magnitude of the threat that they face," says Whitman. "And we're going to continue to try to work very closely with Pakistan because it affects our operations, obviously, along the border and into Afghanistan."

Pakistan's Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, says his country's new leaders already understand the need to address the militant threat. "The major political parties that will now run Pakistan, with a relatively freer hand than ever before, they have a consensus on fighting terrorism for Pakistan's sake," says Haqqani. "I think that a methodical military strategy, developed by the civilians and fully backed by the military, will come into force."

Terror and Politics

Haqqani recently told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington that Pakistan's civilian leaders will have more credibility than former President Musharraf had with local and tribal leaders when they explain the threat the militants pose and seek cooperation in fighting them.

The ambassador says Musharraf -- a general who came to power in a coup in 1999 -- used the fight against terrorism to legitimize his government. But Haqqani says Pakistan's newly elected leaders will not need to do that. "The local leadership in various parts of the tribal areas as well as the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan will be far more cooperative in targeted actions," says Haqqani. "And there will be a better understanding of what needs to be done, who needs to be fought, who needs to be talked to and who needs to be brought on board. And I think that that is what we will see as time goes by."

The ambassador says Pakistan's new, democratic government may not be as efficient as Musharraf's one-man rule. But he says it will be better for the country in the long term.

Some analysts are not as optimistic as Ambassador Haqqani. "To this point, I must say what they have been able to show us is rather discouraging," says Marvin Weinbaum, a former South Asian intelligence analyst for the U.S. State Department and now a scholar-in-residence at Washington's Middle East Institute. "There doesn't seem to be the kind of forceful leadership, competent leadership, that really Pakistan so desperately needs at this point," says Weinbaum. "They've not been able to demonstrate that they can now go and deal with some of the other problems, the major problems, that Pakistan faces with its economy as well as how it's going to deal with counter-terrorism."

The Extremist Threat

Weinbaum says the focus on forcing Musharraf out of office, and now the need to find a successor and settle other political disputes, are potentially dangerous distractions from the country's most pressing problems. "This creates space for the extremists," he says. "If the government can get past these issues, then I think that there's a chance here that they will be able to develop that consensus that, together with the military, they must address specifically the problems that the extremists present."

Another Pakistan watcher has a similar view. Retired American Admiral William Fallon was commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia until this past March. "The civilian coalition leaders have been seemingly more focused on moving Musharraf aside than they have been on the other pressing issues in the country," says Fallon." So it'll be interesting to watch how this unfolds in the coming months to see if the government has the stomach to continue to address what I think is the most pressing internal security problem within the country, and that is these militants."

As head of U.S. Central Command for a year, Fallon had extensive dealings with former President Musharraf. "There were some critical things that he made available, made possible, certainly from my standpoint as the commander of our forces in the region. So we hope that that continues with the new government," says Fallon.

The retired admiral says the Pakistani effort has included fighting militants and facilitating the transport and supply of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

New Military Leadership

Admiral Fallon says he likes what he has seen so far from the new head of Pakistan's Army, General Ashfaq Kiyani, who Musharraf picked for that role last November. "He's played a very critical role and, I think, a helpful role in this situation so far in that he's kept the military out of it. He let the government do its thing," says Fallon. "And in recent weeks, I know they've been doing some increased work up in the Northwest Territories against the militants."

Admiral Fallon says he is not concerned about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. He says Pakistani military officials have a good system of controls and take their mission seriously. But he says it "remains to be seen" whether the country's new civilian leaders will be able to accomplish all that Ambassador Haqqani says they will -- addressing urgent economic and political concerns while fighting entrenched terrorist groups.