WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday called the advance of Islamic militants an "existential threat" to Pakistan and a "mortal threat" to the world and called on Pakistanis to resist their government's policy of ceding territory to extremists.
"I want to take this occasion in this public forum to state unequivocally that not only do the Pakistani government officials, but the Pakistani people . . . need to speak out forcefully against a policy that is ceding more and more territory to the insurgents, to the Taliban, to al Qaida," Clinton told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Pakistan last week agreed to impose Islamic law in the scenic Swat valley, 100 miles from the capital of Islamabad. It was part of a peace deal with militants who, rather than relinquishing their weapons, are strengthening their hold, imposing a brutal form of Islamic rule, and advancing into neighboring districts.
"The Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists," Clinton told lawmakers. The situation in Pakistan, she said, "poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world."
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Clinton's call on Pakistanis at home and abroad to speak out against their government's policy was an unusually public intrusion into the country's internal politics that could further stoke the rising tide of anti-Americanism there.
Senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials, however, say the situation in Pakistan is deteriorating rapidly and acknowledge that they have no strategy to stem the slide. The officials said the U.S. intelligence community is producing an urgent assessment, known as a Special National Intelligence Estimate, of the political, security and economic conditions in Pakistan.
McClatchy reported last week that a growing number of U.S. intelligence, defense and diplomatic officials have concluded that there's little hope of preventing Pakistan from disintegrating into fiefdoms controlled by Islamist warlords and terrorists, posing a greater threat to the U.S. than Afghanistan's terrorist haven did before Sept. 11, 2001.
A senior defense official said the militants' aim is to turn Pakistan into "a Taliban-style" state. He and other officials requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak on the record.
"The situation in Pakistan has gone from bad to worse, and no one has any idea about how to reverse it. I don't think 'panic' is too strong a word to describe the mood here," a senior U.S. intelligence official said Wednesday.
"Pakistan has not abdicated responsibility or ceded territory to the Taliban," Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., told McClatchy. "The agreement in Swat was an attempt to create a local solution, but if it doesn't yield the desired results, then the Pakistan military remains able and available to restore the writ of the state.
"Pakistan faces a serious challenge from the Taliban, and we are very cognizant of it," Haqqani said. "That doesn't mean that Pakistan is in any imminent danger of collapse."
However, the senior U.S. defense official said in an interview this week that the Swat agreement has given the Pakistani Taliban and its militant allies "a taste of victory," and they're likely to resist negotiations and instead seek to extend their control.
From Swat, Taliban forces have probed into the adjacent Buner district and made other expansionist moves.
The senior defense official said he believes the militants' strategy is to slowly encircle the city of Peshawar, the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province, and cut it off from the rest of the country.
Karachi, Pakistan's financial center, is in the grip of rising ethnic tensions, and is "a powderkeg," he said.
"Where is the trajectory?" the senior official asked. "Absent a vigorous army intervention again, which may be (inevitable) in Swat — I don't think they will have a choice — all you have is a continual erosion (in the government's authority)."
Some U.S. officials say Pakistan's only hope, and Washington's, too, at this stage may be the country's army. That, another senior official acknowledged Wednesday, "means another coup."
The official acknowledged that years of military rule in Pakistan have undermined the country's institutions and helped fuel official corruption and the Islamist movement, but he said that Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has concluded that America's best ally is his Pakistani counterpart, army chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Other U.S. and British military and intelligence officials and diplomats, however, are more skeptical of Gen. Kayani's willingness to risk the unity of his forces by launching a more aggressive campaign against fellow Muslims.
(John Walcott contributed to this article.)
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