Bush concerned by growing Pakistani militancy

The growing movement of extremists from Pakistan to Afghanistan is expected to be top of the agenda when US President George W. Bush holds talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani this week.


Concerned by Afghanistan's worsening insurgency, US President George W. Bush is expected to quiz Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in talks this week about his new government's counterterrorism strategy or, as some experts see, the lack of one.

Bush said ahead of the talks Monday that he was "troubled" by the movement of extremists from Pakistan to Afghanistan -- both Washington's allies in the "war on terror" -- and would discuss the threat with Gilani, who is making his first White House visit since he took over the helm in March.

Gilani is also scheduled to meet with popular Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who warned last summer -- and repeated the threat a week ago -- that he would send in the US military unilaterally if Islamabad did not act against Al-Qaeda targets.

"I think Gilani has his work cut out for him in terms of explaining how his government intends to get a handle on this problem, which is not only a Pakistani problem but a problem for the international community as well," said Lisa Curtis, a former State Department advisory and ex-CIA analyst.

She said while Bush was expected to demonstrate support for Gilani's democratic government, he would seek an explanation of how it was dealing with the "burgeoning terrorist safe haven," now extending into settled areas of the North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.

"We have not seen a real focused (counterterrorism) strategy by the new government -- a strategy that the US has confidence in," said Curtis, now with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

"I think the militants are the ones who are gaining from whatever Pakistan is pursuing at the moment," she said.

Afghan and Western officials have long said that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have been able to regroup in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas after they were expelled from Afghanistan in 2001 in a US-led invasion.

Some see Gilani's fledgling democratic government as powerless to act.

In addition, as Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, the once military ruler who received ironclad support from the Bush administration, fades away, new military chief General Ashfaq Kayani "is said to be quietly cutting deal after deal with Al Qaeda-linked militants," US Newsweek magazine said in a web report last week.

"Bush administration officials are growing steadily more alarmed by Pakistan's instability, and they are at a loss about what to do," it said.

A split in Pakistan's ruling coalition over the issue of judges has effectively paralysed the government and hindered efforts to contain a spiralling economic crisis.

"Unsurprisingly, the army has been reluctant to take particularly aggressive steps on its own, preferring a more passive role in the context of political uncertainty," said Daniel Markey of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Affairs.

Should Islamabad’s drift persist well into 2009, he said, the White House would be "severely handicapped," requiring a fresh strategy by the new US president.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose 40-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is  spearheading the fight against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, is also concerned.

"The bottom line is that the present situation cannot be acceptable for anyone," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer Scheffer said in the Afghan capital Kabul last week.

Scheffer wanted Pakistan to be involved in a "regional" effort to contain the rising militancy problem.

But past efforts, especially by Bush, to bring the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan together to forge common ground appear to have failed.

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