MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Pakistan gets a new president tomorrow. The country's parliament and provincial assemblies appear likely to choose Asif Ali Zardari. His wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated last December.
NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on the huge challenges a new president will face.
TOM GJELTEN: The chief political adversaries in Pakistan right now are Mr. Zardari and his rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But others have joined the political debate, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, number two in command of the al-Qaida network.
Zawahiri is an Egyptian and does not speak Urdu, the language of Pakistan. But he still released a message last month, addressed, he said, to the Pakistan army and the people of Pakistan.
AYMAN: I have decided to speak to you in English in order to communicate directly with you and draw your attention to the imminent and grave dangers which are facing Pakistan.
GJELTEN: Al-Qaida moved to Pakistan after it was pushed out of Afghanistan. The network has training camps in the mountainous areas along the border, and U.S. intelligence officials say some al-Qaida operations in the West originate in Pakistan.
But the al-Qaida leaders also devote considerable effort to propaganda activities in Pakistan. In his message last month, Zawahiri took aim at those Pakistanis who have cooperated with the United States in military operations inside the country.
ZAWAHIRI: How can a Pakistani officer or soldier be convinced that he's safeguarding the dignity and high repute of Pakistan when he receives orders from his commanders to launch a new massacre with every visit of a senior American official?
GJELTEN: U.S. officials say there are relatively few senior al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan - maybe no more than 100 - but they work closely with the Pakistani Taliban who are waging their own fight against the Pakistani government.
Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: They exercise a form of stewardship where they become enablers. In other words, strengthening the Taliban's capacities in what al-Qaida knows so well - how to manipulate and exploit public opinion, how to create crises of confidence for governments internally, and then in turn how to take advantage of that vacuum and use the militants in there or approach as a solution to it.
GJELTEN: The political instability in Pakistan in recent weeks has apparently opened more space for the Taliban and their al-Qaida backers. Just two weeks ago, suicide bombers managed to penetrate the perimeter of Pakistan's largest munitions factory, triggering an explosion that killed about 70 people. In its aftermath, according to Bruce Hoffman, the militants threatened more such attacks if the government did not suspend military operations directed against them.
HOFFMAN: A bit more than a week later, the government announced that it was declaring a unilateral ceasefire of operations in Baswar. The justification they gave was they were declaring a ceasefire because of the Muslim month of Ramadan. So, it may well be that these threats are proving effective, and that you have a government now that is indeed being intimidates by the militants.
GJELTEN: To the extent the Pakistani government is unable to assert itself in areas controlled by the Taliban, al-Qaida can operate more freely. A senior intelligence official says the al-Qaida sanctuaries in Pakistan are in danger of becoming genuine safe havens.
Pakistani officials, meanwhile, have, in recent weeks apparently recognized the challenges they face when top Interior Ministry official this week said Ayman al-Zawahiri and his wife have been moving around inside Pakistan, something Pakistani officials have previously been reluctant to acknowledge.
A series of U.S. missile strikes against Taliban and al-Qaida targets in the last week have been vigorously denounced in public, but Republican Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who just returned from a trip to Pakistan, says the government officials he met there seemed privately willing to accommodate the U.S. actions.
CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: It's more like a yellow light, and it's, if you screw up, we're going to go after you. And if our populace doesn't notice all that much, we won't make a big deal out of it. I mean, that's the general feeling you got.
GJELTEN: As for the danger of screwing up, the missile strikes are effective only if there is good intelligence on the intended targets. The information, mostly, has to come from the Pakistani people themselves, and in the words of a senior intelligence official, that's our biggest problem.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.