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The Central Front Front and Center


August 1, 2008

What is the “central front” in the war on terrorism?
According to Obama, its Afghanistan. According to McCain, its Iraq. Bush–still president–has long asserted that its Iraq.

A pair of articles in the NYT yesterday and today suggest otherwise–Pakistan should perhaps be at the center of the discussion.

While Obama may in fact be closer to the mark with is focus on Afghanistan, the source of NATO’s troubles in Afghanistan seems to be emerging from Pakistan. The resurgent Taliban uses Pakistan as a safe haven to rest, re-arm, and retreat as needed. Now, we learn, much of this seems to be happening with the active assistance of the Pakistani ISI.

First, we learn that

A top Central Intelligence Agency official traveled secretly to Islamabad this month to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to American military and intelligence officials.

The C.I.A. emissary presented evidence showing that members of the spy service had deepened their ties with some militant groups that were responsible for a surge of violence in Afghanistan, possibly including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the officials said.

There’s a reason why Obama, the Bush Administration, and just about anyone else with an official or semi-official position talks about Afghanistan and not Pakistan, as it is rather impolitic to do so. The government is fragile, the ISI seemingly has its own agenda, and Pakistan is a critical ally in the Afghanistan campaign. With official support from the government, the US can conduct certain operations in Pakistan, as well as use it for logistics and support to operations in Afghanistan. The CIA also relies on the ISI for intelligence on numerous terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

Of course, the reason the ISI knows those groups well is because it supports many of them. As today’s NYT reports,

American intelligence agencies have concluded that members of Pakistan’s powerful spy service helped plan the deadly July 7 bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, according to United States government officials.

The conclusion was based on intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the attack, the officials said, providing the clearest evidence to date that Pakistani intelligence officers are actively undermining American efforts to combat militants in the region.

The American officials also said there was new information showing that members of the Pakistani intelligence service were increasingly providing militants with details about the American campaign against them, in some cases allowing militants to avoid American missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The fact that this is coming out in the press is rather significant. As the Times reports, this was not the first time the US secretly confronted Pakistan over ISI support for militants. Now, however, as the story leaks, it puts more pressure on Pakistan. Some of this pressure may be welcome and help prod the government to cooperate with the US. It could, however, just as easily backfire and serve to further isolate the US from an increasingly radicalized Pakistani defense and intelligence establishment.

What makes Pakistan the central front in the war on terror is threefold. First, it is the source of support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants the US is currently fighting in Afghanistan. Cut off the Pakistani supply lines and safe havens and the US has shown that NATO forces can assert control over Afghanistan. Second, it remains the one place where radical anti-American elements are poised to take control of a state. The ISI is incredibly powerful in Pakistan–perhaps more powerful than the recently elected government, and it is rife with those who sympathize with Taliban goals. Moreover, there are a large number of radical schools in the tribal borderlands producing a cadre of future militants. And, of course, third, Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal.

So, when candidates are asked about the central front in the War on Terror, they should say Pakistan. But to do so is to fail the first test of diplomacy, and as a result, the best one can do is Obama’s work-around: a focus on Afghanistan and its open border with Pakistan.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.