WASHINGTON — Less than a month after he unveiled it, President Barack Obama's Afghanistan strategy is in trouble, overtaken by new political turmoil in Pakistan that threatens to distract its bickering leaders from the fight against al Qaida and its Afghan and Pakistani allies.
Washington and Islamabad were already embroiled in a nasty quarrel over U.S. demands that Pakistan "do more" to eliminate Afghan guerrilla and al Qaida sanctuaries on its side of the remote border with Afghanistan.
Resolving the dispute now may have to await the outcome of what could be a long, messy battle for survival by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party-led coalition against the judiciary, the opposition and the powerful military.
"Everyone's attention in Pakistan will be on the new political order," said Nasim Ashraf, a scholar with the Middle East Institute who served in Pakistan's former military-run regime.
Even without the crisis, Pakistani generals were unmoved by American denials that Obama's engagement in Afghanistan is limited, and they still see the Afghan militants as their best tools to stop rival India from enlisting Afghanistan in a plot to "encircle" Pakistan after a U.S withdrawal, many experts believe.
Obama's strategy "can't really deal with Pakistan's core security problem," said Stephen Cohen, a former senior State Department official with the Brookings Institution.
Pakistan's new crisis also threatens to divert its leaders from the U.S.-backed offensive against their own al Qaida-allied insurgents, fueling internal strife that has claimed hundreds of lives and stoked fears about the security of the nation's nuclear weapons.
"At a time when our army is finally fighting Pakistan's enemies . . . the government should be focused on this battle for survival. Instead it is being harassed and distracted," columnist Irfan Hussein wrote Dec. 18 in Dawn, Pakistan's largest English-language daily.
The crisis erupted when a raft of criminal cases were reinstated last week against President Asif Ali Zardari and other Peoples Party leaders after Pakistan's Supreme Court annulled an amnesty law that had shielded thousands of politicians and officials from long-standing corruption charges.
Those targeted included Defense Minister Ahmed Muktar and Interior Minister Rehman Malik, key interlocutors with Washington in the fight against al Qaida and Afghan and Pakistani insurgents.
"The U.S. has no leverage over the course of events politically," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst with the Middle East Institute.
The upheaval intensified over the weekend, with Zardari and his allies digging in against demands for the government's resignation and proclaiming their determination to fight the criminal charges in court.
In his Dec. 1 speech announcing his new Afghanistan strategy, Obama acknowledged that its success "is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan."
He pledged additional resources for Pakistan's hard-pressed security forces on top of $1.5 billion a year in non-military aid aimed at bolstering democratic governance and its crumbling infrastructure, health care and educational systems.
Yet even before Obama spoke, Pakistan made clear there were limits to what it was prepared to do for the United States, whose nine-year presence in Afghanistan is blamed by many Pakistanis for fueling the extremist violence in their country.
The government had for months withheld visas for hundreds of U.S. diplomats, other officials and experts involved in the counter-insurgency and civilian aid efforts.
The army led a public outcry against U.S. legislation authorizing the new non-military aid. It saw the measure as a means to strengthen Zardari at the expense of the army, which has ruled the country for much of its existence and considers national security policy its exclusive domain.
Meanwhile, the army-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the powerful spy agency, was widely seen behind a virulent media campaign that stoked anti-U.S. sentiment by claiming that Pakistan secretly is being flooded by U.S. spies and military contractors in cahoots with some of their own top officials.
Still, Obama turned up the heat on Islamabad to move against al Qaida and its Afghan allies, warning that "we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intensions are clear."
Army Gen. David Petreaus, the head of U.S. Central Command, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed up with visits to Islamabad amid U.S. news media leaks that the United States would expand drone strikes and take other actions against militant sanctuaries inside Pakistan if Islamabad didn't act.
Washington specifically wants Pakistan's army to follow up an operation against Pakistani Taliban in the South Waziristan tribal area with a drive against the Haqqani Network, the most fearsome Afghan insurgent group, and al Qaida in North Waziristan.
Pakistan, however, refused.
There also is growing U.S. pressure on Pakistan to pursue Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar and his top aides, who are said by some U.S. officials to shuttle between their sanctuary in the Baluchistan Province capital of Quetta and Karachi, Pakistan's financial capital and main port.
Many experts said that Obama's approach to Pakistan lacks a political strategy to convince the military command that the Islamic groups it considers its best hedge against growing Indian influence in Afghanistan are a greater threat than India.
Pakistani generals "still want influence in Afghanistan and trust in the approach of supporting non-state actors as a way of maintaining that influence," said a Western analyst based in Pakistan who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely.
The July 2011 deadline that Obama set for the start of a U.S. force withdrawal from Afghanistan strengthened the Pakistani military's conviction — rooted in the U.S. abandonment of the region following the end of the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — that it needs to preserve that option.
Moreover, Pakistani officials believe that a political settlement to the Afghan war can only be achieved with the participation of Omar, the Haqqani Network leaders and other leaders of the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that spans the border and dominates the Afghan insurgency, said Shuja Nawaz, an expert with the Atlantic Council., which promotes international understanding.
"The best scenario is the broad-based reintegration of all of the Pashtun elements," he said.
Another major problem for Obama, he said, is that Pakistani security forces are simply unable to undertake new operations.
Those forces are being over-stretched in the struggle to maintain internal security and from the ongoing South Waziristan offensive and an operation last summer to clear militants from the Swat Valley, 60 miles from Islamabad, he said.
Pakistani forces "have such a huge task ahead of them in fighting the Pakistani Taliban," Nawaz said. "That is their number one priority."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009