Between the Lines, an Expansion in Pakistan
Mr. Obama could not be very specific about his Pakistan strategy,
his advisers conceded on Monday evening. American operations there are
classified, most run by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Any overt American presence would only fuel anti-Americanism in a
country that reacts sharply to every missile strike against extremists
that kills civilians as well, and that fears the United States is
plotting to run its government and seize its nuclear weapons.
Yet quietly, Mr. Obama has authorized an expansion of the war in
Pakistan as well — if only he can get a weak, divided, suspicious
Pakistani government to agree to the terms.
In recent months, in addition to providing White House officials
with classified assessments about Afghanistan, the C.I.A. delivered a
plan for widening the campaign of strikes against militants by drone aircraft
in Pakistan, sending additional spies there and securing a White House
commitment to bulk up the C.I.A.’s budget for operations inside the
The expanded operations could include drone strikes in the southern province of Baluchistan, where senior Afghan Taliban
leaders are believed to be hiding, officials said. It is from there
that they direct many of the attacks on American troops, attacks that
are likely to increase as more Americans pour into Afghanistan.
“The president endorsed an intensification of the campaign against Al Qaeda
and its violent allies, including even more operations targeting
terrorism safe havens,” said one American official. “More people, more
places, more operations.”
That was the message delivered in recent weeks to Pakistani officials by Gen. James L. Jones,
the national security adviser. But the Pakistanis, suspicious of Mr.
Obama’s intentions and his staying power, have not yet agreed.
General Jones was one of a series of American officials who arrived
in Pakistan in recent weeks with the same message: no matter how many
troops the president commits to Afghanistan, the strategy will founder
unless the safe haven inside Pakistan is dealt with.
However, the United States does not have much leverage and is
counting on a new attitude and a huge acceleration of efforts from a
weak government. Making matters worse, the president, Asif Ali Zardari, is often at odds with the nation’s powerful military and intelligence establishment.
The question about Mr. Obama’s Pakistan strategy is whether the new
commitment of troops and resources can ultimately make America safer at
a time of an evolving terrorist threat. Mr. Obama insisted that was his
“This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda,” he said to the cadets at West Point,
speaking of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the murky border area
between the two that offers refuge to extremists of many stripes. The
region was the birthplace of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said, and
“it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.” Many
times in the speech he returned to that threat, saying it was what made
this war different from Vietnam.
And he referenced another threat, one that focuses the attention of
Mr. Obama’s national security team daily, but which it speaks about
“The stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because
we know that Al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we
have every reason to believe that they would use them,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s decision to raise the nuclear specter was notable
because a succession of American officials have publicly stated
recently that the Pakistani arsenal is secure. In private, however,
they have commissioned new intelligence studies on how vulnerable
Pakistani warheads and laboratories would be if insurgents made greater
inroads, with one official saying recently, “It is the scenario we
spend the most time thinking about.”
Even if Mr. Obama is successful in lessening the terrorist threat in
the region, many analysts say that Al Qaeda has changed into a
transnational movement beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“There is no direct impact on stopping terrorists around the world
because we are or are not in Afghanistan,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen,
the former C.I.A. officer who was sent into Pakistan after 9/11 to
determine if Osama bin Laden
had access to the country’s nuclear technology. The nature of modern
terrorism, Mr. Mowatt-Larssen, now at Harvard, argued, is that a safe
haven can be moved to many different states, and the bigger threat
exists in cells, including in Europe and the United States.
Even Janet Napolitano,
the secretary of homeland security, acknowledged in an interview this
evening that the steps announced by the president would not address Al
Qaeda cells in Africa or the Middle East, or even homegrown extremists.
But she argued that he had to begin somewhere.
“Can you totally eliminate the threat from Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda
types in Yemen or Somalia? No,” she said. “But what you have done is
taken a major action to limit their ability out of this major theater,
from which their leaders and major actions emanate.”
Making the Pakistan plan even more complex was Mr. Obama’s effort to
reconcile two seemingly contradictory messages on Tuesday evening. He
had to convince the Pakistanis that he was not planning to leave the
region — as the United States did 20 years ago, after the Soviet
withdrawal from Afghanistan — while reassuring American citizens that
after an 18-month buildup, he would begin to head for the exits.
The United States, he said, simply could not afford an open-ended
war. Unlike President Bush, he suggested, he would not set “goals that
are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need
to achieve to secure our interests.”