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Pakistan: A True Ally, or Not?

Health care is still a disaster. But with Jon away, how about a little foreign policy to start the morning? This morning's topic is Pakistan's reliability as an ally against al Qaeda and the Taliban--a critical question when gauging our chances of success in Afghanistan. Yesterday Defense Scretary Robert Gates visited Pakistan, where he became the latest in a parade of U.S. officials to urge that country's army to step up its offensive against Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda elements now enjoying safe haven in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas. But Pakistan is dragging its heels:

Shortly before Mr. Gates’s remarks, the chief spokesman of the Pakistani Army indicated that the army would not begin any assault against militants in the tribal region of North Waziristan for 6 to 12 months, pushing back against calls by the United States to root out militants staging attacks along the Afghan border.

The army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, told American reporters at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi that Pakistan had to stabilize its gains and contain Taliban militants scattered by offensives already opened last year. “We are not capable of sustaining further military operations,” he said.

The developments underscored the difficulties that President Obama now faces in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even as the Taliban have stepped up attacks on both sides of the border, the Pakistani Army has been reluctant to take on all of its factions in all parts of the country’s tribal areas.

Infuriating on its face. But there's a school of thought that the Pakistanis are making progress, and can only go so fast. In fact, I've just wrapped up a long print piece about the Pakistani army's biggest defender in Washington, Joint Chiefs of staff chairman Michael Mullen (which you can read in a few days). His view is that the Pakistani army--which for decades has been organized around confronting India-- has done more against domestic radicals over the past year or so, including a recent operation that cleared out South Waziristan, than most US officials would have predicted.

Unfortunately, however, the current pace may not be fast enough--not if Barack Obama is serious about breaking the Taliban's momentum by July of next year. It will be awfully hard to gain the initiative in Afghanistan as long as characters like Siraj Haqqani are operating with near-impunity in places like North Waziristan. Come six to twelve months from now, if the Pakistanis show no sign of taking the next hard step against these militants, it may be time to conclude that they're not true allies in this fight and never will be.