Pakistani paramilitary troops patrol a road as part of an offensive last month against suspected militants in the Khyber tribal region.
Pakistani paramilitary troops patrol a road as part of an offensive last month against suspected militants in the Khyber tribal region. Qazi Tariq/AP
The debate over Afghanistan has riveted Congress, the Pentagon and policy-watchers as the Obama administration reviews its current strategy. Following a dire assessment of the situation in Afghanistan by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander there, U.S. policy in the region has focused tightly on the possibility of a troop increase.
There has been less emphasis in the public debate about Pakistan, which makes up the other half of the so-called AfPak strategy. But many analysts say Pakistan is critical — perhaps more than Afghanistan — to long-term U.S. plans for the region.
And decisions Obama is pondering now about Afghanistan could affect neighboring Pakistan for decades, analysts say.
"In the long run, Pakistan is more important to larger American interests than Afghanistan," says Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Cohen says it is understandable why the discussion is centered on Afghanistan. "We have forces in Afghanistan, and there's a big debate here about fighting the war in Afghanistan. And this makes Pakistan naturally secondary," he says.
But that thinking is misplaced, according to Cohen, who notes that Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal, is the home base of al-Qaida and has a fragile political system.
Naseem Ashraf, director of the Center for Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute, says every decision about Afghanistan needs to be carefully weighed and considered in terms of how it will affect Pakistan.
For example, he says, there is widespread concern that adding tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan could send Taliban fighters fleeing across the border into Pakistan. Obama is considering a request for as many as 40,000 more American troops for Afghanistan, joining about 68,000 there now.
"I think anything that happens in Afghanistan is going to have a tremendous impact in Pakistan, and that is why it is crucial that we do nothing that would destabilize Pakistan," Ashraf says.
When the latest AfPak strategy was unveiled in March, it gave equal importance to Afghanistan and Pakistan. At that time, both countries appeared to be spiraling downward. Since then, the violence in Afghanistan has continued to soar. Until this week, Pakistan looked more stable, says Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"We've seen a period of relative calm, at least to what we saw in the early spring, with fighting in the Swat Valley and so on. So obviously attention has really swung pretty dramatically from the Pakistan theater of this conflict to the Afghan one," Markey says.
But Markey warns that fundamental problems in Pakistan could lead it to swing just as dramatically the other way.
Even if the current public conversation in Washington does not have Pakistan front and center, the Obama administration is moving ahead there with the strategy it laid out in March. The president briefed key lawmakers Tuesday at the White House on his strategy review of Afghanistan and the status of efforts to work with the government of Pakistan to pursue terrorists there.
Congress last week passed an aid package worth $1.5 billion annually over the next five years to help build the country's economy and political institutions.
There is also a military component to the strategy. The U.S. is pressuring Pakistan to root out al-Qaida and Taliban militants. Senior military and Obama administration officials are raising alarms about the Taliban leadership still operating in Pakistan.
Pakistani officials say the head of its intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, met with senior CIA officials last week to discuss the AfPak strategy, and McChrystal was recently in Islamabad for talks with Pakistan's military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.
Vice President Joe Biden, one of the few officials to speak publicly about Pakistan in the current debate, favors more emphasis on a counterterrorism strategy. That could mean launching even more attacks on militants using unmanned Predator drones or U.S. commandos.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, says that would only inflame public opinion in Pakistan. "I think they need to know that Pakistan is really on the edge. It's still a very fledgling democratic system. Any event — internal or external — could upset the political balance," he says.
Nawaz also says Pakistan needs more of a voice in the debate over how the U.S. should proceed in Afghanistan.