The massacre Tuesday at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, is likely to set off a new round of fighting between the country's army and the Taliban. But the attack may also push President Barack Obama to renew the counter-terrorism partnership with Pakistan that has deteriorated since the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
The latest U.S. intelligence assessment on Tuesday, according to counter-terrorism officials in Washington, is not pretty. It predicts more Taliban attacks in response to the Pakistani military's expected retaliation for the murder of at least 130 students at the school for the children of army officers.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Muhammad Khorasani, said Tuesday that the attack on the school itself was in response to the campaign launched this summer by Pakistan's military against the Taliban in the provinces that border Afghanistan. He also grimly warned that the carnage at the school was "just the trailer," implying that a cycle of massacres may just be beginning.
This expected new wave of terror comes as the United States is already shifting military resources from Southwest Asia to the Middle East, as the U.S. military is preparing to end the war in Afghanistan. Add to this the increased frustration from Washington with Pakistan's military intelligence agency for its continued support for a network of former officers that help direct and coordinate activities for the Afghanistan Taliban.
Yet the new crisis in Peshawar may change that dynamic, presenting an opportunity for the U.S. to re-engage in Pakistan's own war on terror, according to current and former U.S. officials.
In separate visits to Washington in recent weeks, Pakistani Army chief General Raheel Sharif and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif touted their military's recent offensives against militants in northwest Pakistan as key to their request for continued U.S. military assistance, even as Western forces withdraw from Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the spokesman for Pakistan's military tweeted, "This ghastly act of cowardice of killing innocents clearly indicate they are not only enemies of Pak but enemies of humanity." Billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Pakistan's military since 2002 has come in the form of Coalition Support Funds, to reimburse Pakistan for aiding the fight in Afghanistan, and from fees paid in exchange for use of Pakistan's territory to transit goods in and out of Afghanistan. But with the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan near complete, there is no coalition to support and no need to transit goods, leaving the Pakistanis desperate to make the case for continued aid.
"The main reason the Pakistanis finally went into North Waziristan was because they knew they were going to have to do it in order to continue to get U.S. Coalition Support Funding. To justify U.S. funding after the Afghanistan withdrawal, they had to show they are becoming more aggressive against terrorism at large," said Shamila Chaudhary, a former National Security Council specialist on Pakistan. "Now, after this attack, they have no choice but to continue doing it." Michael Flynn, who retired this fall as director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, said the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, and other Jihadist groups would likely continue to launch these kinds of onslaughts. "Do we have the bandwidth to deal with the scale and scope of this to fight against terrorism on this new irregular battlefield?" he asked. "The response of terrorists to conventional fighting will be more of these sorts of attacks. This is how they have decided to fight us and to them, these attacks are a measure of success simply due to the propaganda value they receive." Inside the Obama administration, officials have been divided between those who believe that the TTP represents primarily a threat to Pakistan and those who believe the U.S. has a real national-security interest in helping the Pakistani military destroy the group. But due to the seriousness of this attack, the Obama administration will now feel compelled to more heavily support the Pakistani military as the war against the TTP escalates and the implications for the entire country's future become more pronounced.
"For the U.S., it's yet another example of how much space the Pakistani state has lost to militant power. It's yet another example of how bad and extreme the situation has got in terms of internal stability," Chaudhary said. "U.S. policy makers are going to be very worried about it." If and when the Obama administration does decide to increase its material and financial support for the Pakistani government, it will face an uphill climb on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers in both parties have been fed up for years by what many in Washington see as a two-faced approach by Pakistan, fighting some militants while ignoring or even supporting others.
Congress has put a series of conditions on the large U.S. assistance programs for Pakistan in legislation, most of which the Pakistani government has no chance of meeting. For example, in the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed last week, Pakistan is required to combat all militant groups operating inside its borders and make broad reforms of its political, diplomatic and legal systems before receiving U.S. aid.
The president can and typically does invoke a national security waiver provided by Congress to nullify such restrictions. But going forward, if the U.S. does ramp up its involvement in Pakistan's war against the Taliban, members of Congress are going to demand Pakistan live up to its long unfulfilled promises to go after the militant groups that threaten the stability of Afghanistan as well.
"The question the U.S. will be asking the Pakistani military is, if we increase our support, where does that put the Afghan Taliban? Are you going to show us concrete results against them?" said Shuja Nawaz, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. "The army chief has been saying we are not discriminating, but the evidence will need to be shown to support that. This is an opportunity for them to get their act together, and if they do the U.S. and other allies could be quite happy to provide assistance." A big part of that will depend on the Pakistani and Afghan governments continuing down the road of reconciliation, capitalizing on the exit of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had a terrible relationship with both Pakistani and American leaders. Without Afghan buy in, the TTP can just move its operations over the border and find a safe haven where the Pakistani military can't touch them.
In the end, there is a recognition in Washington that the U.S. has no choice but to continue giving military assistance to Pakistan, whether the Pakistani military lives up to its promises or not. And as the war between the Pakistani government and the TTP ramps up, the U.S. will feel compelled to ramp up its involvement, despite the budget crisis, the war weariness of the populous, and Obama's desire to extricate the U.S. from military involvement in the region.
"We're going to have to continue with a lot of military and counterterrorism funding for Pakistan for the foreseeable future," said Jonah Blank, a Pakistan expert at the Rand Corporation. "Every time you want to get out, they pull you back in."
Josh Rogin and Eli Lake are Bloomberg View columnists who writes about national security and foreign affairs.