New intelligence report says Pakistan is 'on the edge'

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 14, 2008 

WASHINGTON — A growing al Qaida-backed insurgency, combined with the Pakistani army's reluctance to launch an all-out crackdown, political infighting and energy and food shortages are plunging America's key ally in the war on terror deeper into turmoil and violence, says a soon-to-be completed U.S. intelligence assessment.

A U.S. official who participated in drafting the top secret National Intelligence Estimate said it portrays the situation in Pakistan as "very bad." Another official called the draft "very bleak," and said it describes Pakistan as being "on the edge."

The first official summarized the estimate's conclusions about the state of Pakistan as: "no money, no energy, no government."

Six U.S. officials who helped draft or are aware of the document's findings confirmed them to McClatchy on the condition of anonymity because NIEs are top secret and are restricted to the president, senior officials and members of Congress. An NIE's conclusions reflect the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.

The NIE on Pakistan, along with others being prepared on Afghanistan and Iraq, will underpin a "strategic assessment" of the situation that Army Gen. David Petraeus, who's about to take command of all U.S. forces in the region, has requested. The aim of the assessment — seven years after the U.S. sent troops into Afghanistan — is to determine whether a U.S. presence in the region can be effective and if so what U.S. strategy should be.

The findings also are intended to support the Bush administration's effort to recommend the resources the next president will need for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at a time the economic crisis is straining the Treasury and inflating the federal budget deficit.

The Afghanistan estimate warns that additional American troops are urgently needed there and that Islamic extremists who enjoy safe haven in Pakistan pose a growing threat to the U.S.-backed government of Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.

The Iraq NIE is more cautious about the prospects for stability there than the Bush administration and either John McCain or Barack Obama have been, and it raises serious questions about whether the U.S. will be able to redeploy a significant number of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan anytime soon.

Together, the three NIEs suggest that without significant and swift progress on all three fronts — which they suggest is uncertain at best — the U.S. could find itself facing a growing threat from al Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups, said one of the officials.

About the only good news in the Pakistan NIE is that it's "relatively sanguine" about the prospects of a Pakistani nuclear weapon, materials or knowledge falling into the hands of terrorists, said one official.

However, the draft NIE paints a grim picture of the situation in the impoverished, nuclear-armed country of 160 million, according to the U.S. officials who spoke to McClatchy.

The estimate says that the Islamist insurgency based in the Federally Administered Tribal Area bordering Afghanistan, the suspected safe haven of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, is intensifying.

However, according to the officials, the draft also finds that the Pakistani military is reluctant to launch an all-out campaign against the Islamists in part because of popular opposition to continuing the cooperation with the U.S. that began under Pervez Musharraf, the U.S.-backed former president, after the 9/11 attacks.

Anti-U.S. and anti-government sentiments have grown recently, stoked by stepped-up cross-border U.S. missile strikes and at least one commando raid on suspected terrorist targets in the FATA that reportedly have resulted in civilian deaths.

The Pakistani military, which has lost hundreds of troops to battles and suicide bombings, is waging offensives against Islamist guerrillas in the Bajaur tribal agency and Swat, a picturesque region of the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. U.S. officials said insurgent attacks on Pakistani security forces provoked the Pakistani army operations.

The Pakistan general staff also remains concerned about what it considers an ongoing threat to its eastern border from its traditional foe, India, the draft NIE finds, according to the U.S. officials.

For these reasons, they said, the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, wants the new civilian coalition government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to provide the military with political cover by blessing a major anti-insurgency crackdown.

However, the ruling coalition, in which President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto, holds the real authority, has been preoccupied by other matters, according to the draft NIE.

These include efforts to consolidate its power after winning a struggle that prompted its main rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, to leave the ruling coalition.

Moreover, widespread anti-U.S. anger has left the coalition deeply divided over whether to unleash a major military assault on the Islamists, the U.S. officials said.

The government is also facing an accelerating economic crisis that includes food and energy shortages, escalating fuel costs, a sinking currency and a massive flight of foreign capital accelerated by the escalating insurgency, the NIE warns.

The Pakistani public is clamoring for relief as the crisis pushes millions more into poverty, giving insurgent groups more opportunities to recruit young Pakistanis.

(Warren P. Strobel and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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