They're not ski slopes: The tribal areas of Waziristan in Pakistan near the Afghan border, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban reign, are the Obama administration's slipperiest slopes in the Middle East. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Pakistan ó not Palestine-Israel, not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not even Iran ó is the Obama administrationís biggest challenge in the Middle East.[p] The reason: Islamists in the northwestern tribal areas of Pakistan are gaining, the Pakistani government of President Asif Ali Zardari (who's always talked a good game but lined his pockets better) appears inadequate or incompetent to deal with the threat, and besides bombing runs, the United States has no clear strategy to counter the militantsí surge. Internally, the Pakistani military may not be as loyal to the government as it has been in the past: Islamists have their loyalists in the Pakistani military too.
Thatís dangerous, considering that Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal. So, for Obama, the Number 1 challenge in the Middle East is figuring out how to control Pakistan should it experience a coup and should the nuclear arsenal fall in the wrong hands. Pakistan is an extremely unstable nation, and getting more so due to its poor financial condition.
His options? Theyíre limited. Obama or not, the United States isnít popular in Pakistan. The country refuses to allow American forces to operate on its soil. It has reluctantly agreed, at least tacitly, to letting unmanned drones enter Pakistani air space and fire missiles at suspected insurgent targets from time to time, but rarely without condemning the attacks afterward. Yet trying to do battle against al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in the tribal areas, from the air, is ineffective at best, and damaging in the long run, as civilian casualties pile up and few al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders are killed. Islamists have, at any rate, proved remarkably fertile when it comes to replacing leaders killed in action. Thatís unlikely to change even if Osama bin laden himself is either imprisoned or killed.
That leaves two options. In a broader sense, the United States can help Pakistan economically rather than militarily. The $10 billion in mostly military aid the Bush administration dispensed to Pakistan since 2001 hasnít yielded much in return. It may even have fed into the arms pipeline leading back to Islamists, through their loyalists in the Pakistani intelligence service and the armed forces. The Obama administration backs a $15 billion aid package over 10 years (championed by Joe Biden before he became vice president), focused mostly on economic aid, education, water projects and other heart-s-and-mind sort of investments. The more solid Pakistan becomes as a society, socially and economically, the weaker the Islamistís base.
The $1.5 billion in non-security aid would be in addition to the projected $1 billion in annual military aid to Pakistan, although Biden would make military aid conditional on performance: ďWe should be willing to spend more if we get better returnsóand less if we donít.Ē
In a narrower sense, the Obama administrationís best bet is much stronger intelligence on the ground. That means cultivating an intelligence network able to penetrate Taliban and al-Qaeda circles. Itís old fashioned human intelligenceógrit, wit and persistence, not bombs and a prayer. To date, thereís no evidence that the CIA, whose counter-terrorism record in the Bush and Clinton years was abysmal, has managed to penetrate Islamist circles. The change of culture in that agency may have more to do with its headquarters in the United States than with its agents on the ground.