ISLAMABAD – As the U.S. looks ahead to its phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, even more attention is being directed toward Pakistan, where Obama administration officials say Al Qaeda and its allies are still plotting attacks against the West.
They argue that threat has been effectively neutralized in Afghanistan, a key justification for President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that the U.S. will withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 because Al Qaeda used it as the base to launch the 9/11 attacks.
Afghanistan could take on new significance for the U.S. as a base to launch unilateral strikes against militants inside neighboring Pakistan, an unstable nuclear-armed country that many analysts say is more strategically important than Afghanistan.
That future has become more likely as the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. has deteriorated following the American raid that killed Al Qaeda chief Usama bin Laden not far from the Pakistani capital last month. The operation humiliated Pakistan, which cut back on counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., a popular move in a country where anti-American sentiment is rife.
"We haven't seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years," said a senior administration official in a briefing given to reporters in Washington before Obama's speech. "The threat has come from Pakistan over the past half-dozen years or so, and longer."
One of the most high-profile attempted attacks against the U.S. homeland coming from Pakistan recently was by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who tried to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square last year. He allegedly traveled to Pakistan's tribal areas and coordinated his attack with the Pakistani Taliban.
Since Pakistan effectively prohibits American troops inside the country and has been a reluctant ally in targeting militants the U.S. deems a threat, Washington has increasingly relied on covert CIA drone missile strikes to target Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters holed up in Pakistan's mountainous border region with Afghanistan.
The U.S. refuses to acknowledge the drone program in Pakistan, but Obama alluded to its effectiveness in his speech, saying "together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of Al Qaeda's leadership."
But the future of the drone program in Pakistan could be threatened by pervasive anti-American sentiment and anger over the U.S. commando raid that killed bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad on May 2.
The drones are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, and lawmakers took the opportunity to demand the government, which is widely believed to allow the drones to take off from bases inside the country, halt the program.
That demand found resonance with Pakistanis, nearly 70 percent of whom view the U.S. as an enemy despite billions of dollars in American aid, according to a recent poll conducted after the bin Laden raid by the Washington-based Pew Research Center. Only 12 percent of Pakistanis have a positive view of the U.S., according to the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
If Pakistan were to prevent drones from taking off from inside the country, the U.S. would have to launch them from Afghanistan, an act that would further increase tensions in the region, said Riffat Hussain, a defense professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
"The staging area would then become Afghanistan, which would be totally anathema to Pakistan because then you are using another country's territory for attacks against Pakistan," Hussain said. "That will not only escalate tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it means America has declared war on Pakistan."
The U.S. has also made it clear that if it obtains intelligence on future high-value terrorist targets inside Pakistan, it could stage special forces attacks from Afghanistan like the one that killed bin Laden.
The raid infuriated Pakistan because the government wasn't told of it beforehand. U.S. officials have said they kept the Pakistanis in the dark because they were worried that bin Laden would be tipped off by extremist sympathizers in the Pakistani military.
Pakistan responded to the raid by kicking out more than 100 U.S. troops training Pakistanis in counterterrorism operations and reduced the level of intelligence cooperation -- something that could make it more difficult for the U.S. to target militants in the country.
One of the primary causes of U.S. frustration with Pakistan is its unwillingness to target Afghan Taliban militants and their allies in the country who launch cross-border attacks against NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan says its troops are stretched too thin by other operations, but many analysts believe the government is reluctant to attack groups with which it has historical ties and could be useful allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
Hussain, the defense professor, said the beginning of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and Obama's admission that the U.S. would support reconciliation talks with the Taliban made it even less likely that Pakistan would target militants deemed a threat by Washington.
"If you are talking to the Taliban, then you can't expect Pakistan to go after them," Hussain said.
Obama said he would press Pakistan to tackle the militant threat inside the country, but also implied the U.S. would not hesitate to go it alone when its security was endangered.
"For there should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us," Obama said.