President Bush held an emergency meeting of his top foreign policy aides yesterday to discuss the deepening crisis in Pakistan, as administration officials and others explored whether Thursday's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto marks the beginning of a new Islamic extremist offensive that could spread beyond Pakistan and undermine the U.S. war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.
U.S. officials fear that a renewed campaign by Islamic militants aimed at the Pakistani government, and based along the border with Afghanistan, would complicate U.S. policy in the region by effectively merging the six-year-old war in Afghanistan with Pakistan's growing turbulence.
"The fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably tied," said J. Alexander Thier, a former United Nations official in Afghanistan who is now at the U.S. Institute for Peace.
U.S. military officers and other defense experts do not anticipate an immediate impact on U.S. operations in Afghanistan. But they are concerned that continued instability eventually will spill over and intensify the fighting in Afghanistan, which has spiked in recent months as the Taliban has strengthened and expanded its operations.
Unrest in Pakistan and increasing fuel prices have already boosted the cost of food in Afghanistan, making it more likely that hungry Afghans will be lured by payments from the Taliban to participate in attacks, a U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan said.
In a secure videoconference yesterday linking officials in Washington, Islamabad and Crawford, Tex., Bush received briefings from CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson, said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. Bush then discussed Bhutto's assassination and U.S. efforts to stabilize Pakistan with his top foreign policy advisers, including Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, as well as Adm. William J. Fallon of Central Command and Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
U.S. intelligence and Defense Department sources said there is increasing evidence that the assassination of Bhutto, a former Pakistani prime minister, was carried out by al-Qaeda or its allies inside Pakistan. The intelligence officials said that in recent weeks their colleagues had passed along warnings to the Pakistani government that al-Qaeda-related groups were planning suicide attacks on Pakistani politicians.
The U.S. and Pakistani governments are focusing on Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, as a possible suspect. A senior U.S. official said that the Bush administration is paying attention to a list provided by Pakistan's interior ministry indicating that Mehsud's targets include former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, former interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, and several other cabinet officials and moderate Islamist leaders. "I wouldn't exactly call it a hit list, but we take it very seriously," the official said. "All moderates [in Pakistan] are now under threat from this terrorism."
Mehsud told the BBC earlier this month that the Pakistani government's actions forced him to react with a "defensive jihad."
After signing a condolence book for Bhutto at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, Rice said the United States is in contact with "all" of the parties in Pakistan and stressed that the Jan. 8 elections should not be postponed. "Obviously, it's just very important that the democratic process go forward," she told reporters.
The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan warned U.S. citizens Thursday to keep a low profile and avoid public gatherings. A Pentagon official said plans to evacuate Americans from the country are being reviewed.
"We've really got a new situation here in western Pakistan," said Army Col. Thomas F. Lynch III, who has served in Afghanistan and with Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for Pakistan and the Middle East. He said the assassination marks a "critical new phase" in jihadist operations in Pakistan and predicted that the coming months would bring concentrated attacks on other prominent Pakistanis.
"The Taliban . . . are indeed a growing element of the domestic political stew" in Pakistan, said John Blackton, who served as a U.S. official in Afghanistan in the 1970s and again 20 years later. He noted that Pakistani military intelligence created the Taliban in Afghanistan.
How the United States responds will hinge largely on the actions of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in whom U.S. officials have mixed confidence. If there is indeed a new challenge by Islamic militants emerging in Pakistan, then the United States will have to do whatever it can to support Musharraf, the U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan said.
‘Pakistan must take drastic action’
"Pakistan must take drastic action against the Taliban in its midst or we will face the prospect of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of al-Qaeda — a threat far more dangerous and real than Hussein's arsenal ever was," he said, referring to the deposed Saddam Hussein.
But Musharraf has a track record of promising much to Washington but doing little to counter the militants, others said. "My prediction is, Musharraf will go into a bunker mentality and be nicer to the Muslims," said John McCreary, who led the Defense Intelligence Agency's 2001 task force on Afghanistan. "He goes through the pretenses of crackdown but never follows through."
"Pakistan isn't really engaged in a fight against terror," added Blackton. "One of the mistakes amongst many U.S. policymakers is to project the American construct of a war on terror onto the Pakistani regime struggle for survival. There are some congruencies between the two, but even more differences."
The clever move for Musharraf would be to allay such doubts by capturing or killing a major Islamic extremist leader in the coming weeks, said Larry P. Goodson, an area expert who teaches strategy at the U.S. Army War College. But he said he doubts that would happen or that Musharraf would take many concrete actions, aside possibly from declaring a new state of emergency.
A countervailing pressure on Musharraf is that if he does not respond effectively to an Islamic militant campaign against his government, he also could face falling from power. At some point, said Teresita C. Schaffer, a former State Department official specializing in India and Pakistan, the Pakistani army "could conclude that he's a liability."
Staff writer Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.