WASHINGTON, April 3 (UPI) -- Serious, ongoing and potentially catastrophic problems in geopolitically important but politically weak Pakistan are getting too little attention from U.S. officials while Iraq remains America's primary foreign policy focus, according to think tank experts who follow South Asia.
"I don't think anybody above the assistant secretary level is paying any attention to this (problem)," Teresita C. Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told United Press International.
Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has portrayed Pakistan as a frontline ally in the war on terrorism, but critics say that the Pakistani government's cooperation has been spotty at best. Thousands of members of al-Qaida -- including Osama bin Laden -- are believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan under a political and military regime with strong ties to fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups. Elements within the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies have connections with al-Qaida and the Taliban, and longstanding ties with numerous other terrorist groups that are working to undermine Indian control of the disputed Kashmir border region.
In addition, Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and the country's apparent transfer of nuclear technology and know-how to Iran and North Korea remain significant sticking points in U.S.-Pakistani relations. The U.S. government levied sanctions this week against a Pakistani nuclear research institute accused of purchasing North Korean missiles and selling nuclear technology to the dictator Kim Jong Il's government in Pyongyang.
Schaffer, who was U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia from 1989 to 1992, said that American problems with Pakistan boil down to a disconnect over several key issues. Although the Pakistani government has shown a willingness to help with the U.S. war on terrorism by providing critical intelligence services, the Musharraf regime has been unwilling to take the steps needed to prevent proliferation of the country's nuclear technology, and to reduce the chances for a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India over Kashmir.
"Pakistan is a threat, but it is more complicated than that," said Schaffer.
George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the Pakistani nuclear program represents a greater nonproliferation problem than Iraq and a significant policy challenge for the United States.
"Pakistan is the most difficult proliferation challenge in the world," Perkovich said Wednesday during a panel discussion on the current state of Pakistan at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, known as SAIS. "Basically there are more dimensions to the proliferation challenge in Pakistan than anywhere else."
Perkovich said that beyond the issues of nuclear war and the transfer of nuclear technology, the fragility of the social and political infrastructure in Pakistan remains a threat to the security of the country's nuclear weapons. One real fear is that a militant Islamic government could emerge in Pakistan, either through a coup or an election, making Pakistan a nuclear-armed extremist Muslim state. There is also the remote possibility that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could become a stronger destabilizing force in the region if its warheads were redirected from India to other nations.
There are also questions about the Musharraf government's ability to control the powerful Islamic anti-American elements within Pakistan. Although five leading al-Qaida operatives have been arrested around the country over the past year, some critics question whether these arrests are simply an attempt by the Musharraf regime to do just enough to keep American officials happy while not upsetting religious fundamentalists in Pakistan.
Despite Musharraf's banning of anti-western jihadi groups, such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba, or SSP, in January 2002, the arrest of hundreds of their members, and orders to end all terrorist efforts in Kashmir, these Islamic fundamentalist groups have regrouped and are viewed as more powerful than ever.
Christophe Jaffrelot, director of the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, a think tank in Paris, said at the SAIS forum that the jihadis in Kashmir are back to business as usual. Such groups are also thought to be responsible for attacks against Western targets, including one on the American consulate in Karachi last June.
"The jihadi groups have certainly been disturbed by the policies of Musharraf after January 2002, but they regrouped," said Jaffrelot. "They formed new movements."
Jaffrelot noted that although it is not always easy to know who in the Pakistani government is helping such groups, it is clear that Pervez Musharraf, a former general in the Pakistani army, has backed off on his opposition. Among the reasons he cited for this is the recent increase in the political power of Pakistani Islamic fundamentalists, including a strong showing by extremist parties in parliamentary elections last year.
In addition, along with the country's intelligence services, the Pakistani army has longstanding ties with the nation's Islamic fundamentalist groups, some of which were initially set up with the backing of military and intelligence agencies in order to infiltrate and destabilize Kashmir.
"There is a long tradition of joint ventures with Islamic terrorist groups in Kashmir," said Jaffrelot. "Do not forget that tradition when you look at the way he (Musharraf) is trying to accommodate the jihadi groups."
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador and a leading newspaper columnist in Pakistan, said at the SAIS forum that Pakistan must move away from military control of government to ensure the country's long-term viability. He said this is the only way Pakistan can move away from its 50-year history of being a rent-collecting state that relies for survival on its geopolitical position and economic support from world powers. This rent-seeking status and the dominance of the military must be overcome if Pakistan is to have economic growth, self-sufficiency and stability, Haqqani said.
"To this day it seems that General Musharraf and his team are more willing to deal with very, very weak politicians and the religious parties," said Haqqani. "I see that as causing problems with international relations and their overall agenda."
Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at Carnegie, said that despite problems with the Musharraf regime, the U.S. government must remain engaged with Pakistan because it is an important strategic partner to the United States.
"We are doomed to work with and through Pakistani governments if we are to have any hope of any level of success in controlling terrorism emanating from Pakistan," said Lieven at the SAIS forum.
Schaffer said that the war in Iraq has become a limiting factor that curtails the United States' ability to engage Pakistan on these important issues, and could actually exacerbate these problems.
"The longer the war (with Iraq) lasts, the more pressure it puts on systems in Pakistan, to the great likelihood that a few of the restrictions still operating on Islamic militants will be lifted because the (Musharraf) government is looking for a safety value, and worried about its political future," said Schaffer.
She also noted that the Iraq war limits the U.S. government's ability to engage in the type of intense situation management that would be needed if Pakistan and India again come to the brink of nuclear conflict. U.S. government intervention was critical to defusing tensions between the two nations last summer. Conflict between the two countries is again on the rise, with India complaining that Musharraf has reneged on promises to control Pakistani elements seeking to destabilize Kashmir.
"I think we are going to have some kind of (nuclear) scare (between Pakistan and India) this summer," said Schaffer. "I do hope this doesn't turn into an actual war."