Amid Afghan Policy Debate, What About Pakistan? Many analysts say Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the most critical component of U.S. strategy in the region. Amid the current Washington debate over whether more U.S. troops should be deployed to Afghanistan, Pakistan is getting relatively little attention.
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Amid Afghan Policy Debate, What About Pakistan?

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Amid Afghan Policy Debate, What About Pakistan?

Amid Afghan Policy Debate, What About Pakistan?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

You may remember where you were or even which news anchor told you the news. Eight years ago today, the United States went to war in Afghanistan. Even then, it was clear that Pakistan was part of the problem - a nuclear armed neighbor and a sanctuary for insurgents. The problems have become more stark over time. In this part of the program, we'll look at the shifting U.S. effort to deal with with Afghanistan's neighbor.

We start with NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The current debate on Afghanistan that has riveted Congress, the Pentagon and Washington think tanks is tightly focused on the possibility of a U.S. troop increase. But many analysts say there's been precious little talk about Pakistan, which makes up the other half of the AfPak strategy.

Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says it's understandable why the discussion is centered on Afghanistan.

Mr. STEPHEN COHEN (Brookings Institution): We have forces in Afghanistan, and there's a big debate here about the strategy to fight the war in Afghanistan. And this makes Pakistan naturally secondary. I think though, that's misplaced. I think that in the long run Pakistan is more important to the larger American interests than Afghanistan.

NORTHAM: Cohen notes Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal, is the home base of al-Qaida, and has a fragile political system.

Naseem Ashraf, the director of the Center of 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's widespread concern that adding tens of thousands more U.S. troops to the Afghanistan theater could send Taliban fighters fleeing across the border into Pakistan.

Mr. NASEEM ASHRAF (Director, Center of Pakistan Studies, Middle East Institute): 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. Decisions made today would have an effect, you know, for decades.

NORTHAM: When the current 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. But until this week, Pakistan looked more stable, says Daniel Markey with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. DANIEL MARKEY (Council on Foreign Relations): In Pakistan we've seen a period of relative calm, so obviously attention has really swung pretty dramatically from the Pakistan theater of this conflict to the Afghan one. But there's nothing structurally different about the problems inside of Pakistan that won't lead it to swing back that way at some point.

NORTHAM: Even if the current conversation is not front and center on Pakistan, the administration is moving ahead there with the strategy it laid out in March. Congress last week passed an aid package worth $1.5 billion 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 on its soil. Senior American military and administration officials are raising alarms about the Taliban leadership still operating in Pakistan.

Vice President Joe Biden, one of the few who has spoken publicly about Pakistan in the current debate, favors more of a counterterrorism strategy. That could mean launching even more attacks on militants using unmanned Predator drones or U.S. commandos.

Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, says that would only inflame public opinion in Pakistan.

Ms. SHUJA NAWAZ (Director, South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council): Well, I think then 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.

NORTHAM: Nawaz also says Pakistan needs more of a voice in the debate over how the U.S. should proceed in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say the head of its intelligence agency, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, met with senior CIA officials last week to discuss the AfPak strategy, and General Stanley McChrystal was recently in Islamabad for talks with Pakistan's military chief.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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