The United States has decided to minimize the use of Pakistani bases in any military strike against the Taleban. U.S. officials fear that an extensive U.S. deployment in Pakistan could destabilize that nuclear-capable nation, a key ally in the U.S. fight against terrorism. Terrorism experts, meanwhile, argue that Pakistan's ties to the Taleban make it an uncertain ally in the anti-terrorism effort.
Shortly after last month's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, U.S. military officials had suggested Pakistan would be a key staging area for U.S. strikes against the main suspect in the attacks, Osama bin Laden, as well as his supporters and the Taleban rulers believed to be harboring them.
Now it appears U.S. officials are rethinking that strategy.
Although Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pledged to support the U.S. fight against terrorism, U.S. officials are concerned that he could face significant opposition from Taleban supporters in his country if there is a major U.S. military deployment there.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage addressed the issue in an interview on American television (ABC) Wednesday. "We had a very blunt and frank talk with officials of Pakistan, and we were able to get them to accede to our demands," he said. "I do not want to be public about them, but it is recognized equally that Pakistan is a fragile political society. We do not want to burden Pakistan with more than we absolutely need."
So now Washington is focusing on getting access to bases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan and Tajikstan, as well as in the Gulf.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is on a brief trip to Uzbekistan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Pakistan is not on his itinerary.
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, says Washington asked her country last month for access to its bases for any military campaign, and the Pakistani government agreed to the request.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Ambassador Lodhi would not say why the United States is looking elsewhere to stage military deployments. But she said Pakistan continues to back U.S. efforts against terrorism. "There is no question of Pakistan in any way not being as forthcoming as it was on day one," she added. "We are exactly where we were. In terms of what the operational plan will be, will see, or will envisage or contemplate, I am not in a plan to discuss that in public."
But some terrorism experts are skeptical of Pakistan's commitment. They say the Pakistani intelligence service has supported Islamic militants who trained with Osama bin Laden and fought against India in the disputed region of Kashmir.
Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of counterterrorism Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency, underscored the point at a House International Relations Committee hearing Wednesday. "They [the Pakistanis] have made a decision to support us," he said. "They decided to change horses. But nevertheless, there is a legacy here, and it will continue in the future because of their promotion of terrorism in Kashmir, and that makes them at all times an uncertain ally."
Charles Santos, a former special assistant to the United Nations undersecretary for political military affairs, told the hearing the United States should be aware that some members of the Pakistani military and the Taleban share ethnic ties. "Within the Pakistani army, many are Pakistani Pashtuns, so you have links by family and clan that cross over the borders," he said. "So you would expect that within the Pakistan military, there would be significant connections from family to business with the Taleban and ultimately with bin Laden's networks. I think in terms of reliability, one just needs to keep that in mind. The issue of Pakistan being a dependable ally may be a bit more problematic than it was say 10 years ago."
Mr. Santos argued that for there to be progress in the fight against terrorism, the Pakistani government must sever all ties with the Taleban.
Pakistani Ambassador Lodhi disagrees, and reiterates that Pakistan is a steadfast ally in the war on terrorism. She says Pakistan has reduced its ties with the Taleban, but is maintaining minimal links for good reason. "We have pulled out all our diplomatic and consular personnel from Afghanistan," she stressed. "We have minimal diplomatic relations right now. We have kept these because we feel right now that Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, and this contact does provide the last channel of communication that the world has with Afghanistan."
Ambassador Lodhi did not rule out eventually cutting ties with the Taleban. As she put it, it is one of a number of issues in an evolving situation that are constantly under review by her government.