Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was right when he countered his old rival Dick Cheney's criticisms of President Obama's counterterrorism policies last weekend. Cheney's assertion that the nation was less safe under the new administration was "not borne out by the facts," Powell said. Many of those facts can be found on the ground in Pakistan, where the Obama administration has enjoyed an unprecedented degree of cooperation from the once-hesitant government in Islamabad, and has led a coordinated effort to bring the Pakistan military and civilian sides together.
Since last summer a slew of top Taliban commanders wanted by both governments, including Baitullah Mehsud and Abdul Ghani Baradar, have been killed or arrested. The remaining Pakistani Taliban, who only a year ago enjoyed close to untouchable status, are now hunted men, including elements of the dangerous Haqqani Network in Waziristan. And the "hammer and anvil" approach in Afghanistan—with NATO's Marja offensive serving as the hammer and Pakistani forces across the border acting as the anvil—may at last be working after nearly a decade of losing ground to encroaching Taliban, who had years to regroup from their safe haven in the mountainous tribal regions of Pakistan.
A bloody stalemate that some critics a year ago—including NEWSWEEK—worried might turn into "Obama's Vietnam" has a chance of becoming known instead as the Obama Surge, with an aura of success reminiscent of George W. Bush's 11th hour reassertion of control in Iraq in 2007–08. And this surge is targeted much more directly at our real enemy, Al Qaeda.
The question is whether this intelligence windfall will bring us any closer to the real prizes: Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, all of whom are still believed to be hiding in Pakistan? American and Pakistani officials won't promise that just yet, but a senior U.S. administration official tells me, "We're making them very uncomfortable." And they expect more successes to come. According to senior American and Pakistani officials, about 12 Al Qaeda were arrested recently trying to cross into Pakistan in Helmand—and were turned over to NATO. Pakistani forces also claim to have killed another 11 "Al Qaeda liaison personnel."
Key to the turnaround have been several changed elements, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. First, intensive, hands-on U.S. diplomacy with Pakistan—with regular senior-level trips by national-security adviser Jim Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and others—has helped to reassure Islamabad that it is seen as a long-term partner, not a mere instrument. The diplomatic offensive has also begun to dissuade many in the Pakistani military and intelligence services that they need to cultivate extremist groups—including the Taliban—in order to secure a voice in neighboring Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and India have long seen the country as a proxy battleground where both countries seek to gain advantage, and the Pakistanis have generally sponsored Muslim extremists as a means to undermine India. But the Obama administration has helped to persuade Islamabad—especially the military—that it will have a bigger voice in the political future of Afghanistan without resorting to extremist allies. U.S. diplomacy with India led by Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador Tim Roemer also has taken the edge off the rivalry. "The driving force from the outset is that Pakistan needed to be part of the regional strategy. They need to be comfortable they're going to have an Afghanistan on the border that will be stable and not a threat to them," said the senior administration official. "The internal criticism there was that Pakistan was viewed by the Americans as a mere launching pad. Also, we provided assurances that the [planned] 2011 withdrawal [from Afghanistan] doesn't mean we're leaving."
At the same time, the Pakistani security chiefs have come to understand that the Taliban threaten their own state, perhaps more than India does right now (in a further sign of cooling passions, the foreign secretaries of the two countries are meeting this week). Just as important, the crackdown by Pakistan's military has been popular. This was partly the result of foolish overreaching by the extremists. As Taliban forces moved into Swat Valley they sought to impose harsh Islamic law and sowed indiscriminate violence that left a bitter taste, prompting support when Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani directed a successful offensive there.
Islamabad, with U.S. encouragement, also has launched a propaganda campaign to highlight the brutality of the Taliban. When Gen. Jones visited the Pakistani frontier corps on his most recent trip, they were being shown videos of the Taliban beheading Pakistanis. "It's had this chilling effect," the senior administration official told me Tuesday upon Jones's return. "There is great support among the population for what the Pakistani army has been doing. Kayani certainly sees that. More than ever before, they [the Pakistani Army] have a sense of purpose and backing of the people." According to one internal government survey cited to NEWSWEEK, about three quarters of Pakistanis now consider the Taliban to be a threat, whereas the percentage was down in the low 30s during the years of autocrat Pervez Musharraf.
Finally, the Pakistani government itself is at long last united, and the ugly anti-Americanism that accompanied the foreign-aid debate last year may have abated somewhat. (Though the administration official cautions: "There is still great sensitivity to close cooperation with the U.S. It is still not politically popular.") Until late last year there was intense mistrust between the military and the civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. But on his most recent trip, Gen. Jones met with all three in the same room, a sign that U.S. efforts to bring the parties together have had some effect.
All in all, it is a striking contrast to the Bush years. Despite taking a tough you're-with-us-or-against-us approach with Pakistan, the Bush team found the Pakistanis were chronically stingy with intelligence. Critics such as Gary Schroen, the former CIA station chief, saw a pattern of giving up second-rate Taliban or Al Qaeda leaders only to ameliorate American mistrust, then retreating. To maintain his power, with the approval of Bush and Cheney, Pakistan's then-president Musharraf cut deals with the religious parties that gave extremists succor, in particular the coalition called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, or United Action Committee). Musharraf also barred the parties of his main democratic rivals, including the Pakistan Peoples Party led by the since-assassinated Benazir Bhutto (Zardari is her widower). The result was that Islamism grew in power and influence under Musharraf's constantly deferred promises to reinstate genuine democracy, even as Washington delivered billions of dollars in aid. Pakistani officials also complain that the Bush team did little more than make demands. "The Pakistanis were feeling used," said the Obama administration official.
To be fair to Bush, he and then–secretary of state Condoleezza Rice sought to ease Musharraf out of power toward the end. And there are still many things that could still go wrong now: Zardari remains unpopular and faces an ever-threatening political insurgency from former prime minister Nawaz Sharif (with whom the Americans have also been in contact). And, of course, another errant drone strike could also throw the country back into a frenzy of anti-Americanism. Senior U.S. officials say it will be a year before it is known whether the Marja offensive—and the so-called hammer and anvil—have succeeded.
But both U.S. and Pakistani officials express cautious optimism that a corner has been turned in the central front against Islamic terrorists.