WASHINGTON - U.S. efforts to shrink al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan have stalled, enabling militants to step up planning of terrorist strikes against the United States and cross-border attacks into Afghanistan unhindered, according to U.S. officials.
Despite billions of dollars in aid, largely to the Pakistani military, the United States has watched from the sidelines as Pakistan has concluded peace deals with tribal leaders and extremists in Pakistan that have resulted in increased attacks against U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. officials say.
U.S. officials have been unsuccessful in getting the Pakistani army to move against the extremists.
The resulting stalemate, senior officials say, raises the risk of an attack on the United States from Pakistan's extremist sanctuaries.
Mullen said the situation in Pakistan, with food and fuel shortages and power outages, is "deteriorating rapidly." But he acknowledged that there is little that the United States can do other than to be patient.
"There is no simple answer," he told defense reporters. "And yet, that [need for] patience runs you right up against the threat, and that really defines the problem," said Mullen, who recently returned from his third trip to Pakistan in five months.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan, the world's second-largest Muslim nation, has had turbulent relations with the United States. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, agreed to support the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. But popular support for U.S. policies fell steeply, and Musharraf was forced to step down as army chief of staff in November.
Since the spring elections, a coalition government has struggled with economic and security crises. In the resulting power vacuum, the influence and reach of extremists in Pakistan have grown.
A senior Pentagon official, on a visit to Pakistan a year ago, said he was "stunned by the increasing Talibanization" of the country as Islamic extremism spread from the border regions into mainstream Pakistan.
"The situation is extremely dire," said Ahmed Rashid, a veteran Pakistani journalist and author of a new book on the region, Descent into Chaos.
"People are scared" about the growth of extremism, he told a Washington gathering last week. "It will be a period of mayhem and crisis."
Despite pressure from Washington, the new Pakistani government has pursued peace talks with tribal leaders in the Federally Administered Tribal Area and North West Frontier province where al-Qaida and other extremists established sanctuaries after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.
But apart from an occasional strike by an armed Predator drone against terrorists in the tribal area, the United States has refrained from intervening.
"The situation is hard to follow and not easy to influence," said a senior State Department official. "Our approval ratings are steadily declining."
He noted a recent poll by Pakistan's respected Herald magazine, in which 75 percent of the respondents said it was wrong for Pakistan to align itself with the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"That's three-quarters of Pakistani society, not just the uneducated rabble or Islamists. These are people who normally looked at the United States in a very favorable light. So, we are hurting in Pakistan," said the State Department official, who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly.
Analysts say that the United States bears some responsibility for allowing extremism to fester in Pakistan's border regions.
"The threat of terrorism and extremism is a direct result of the lackadaisical attitude of the United States" after the war in Afghanistan, when Washington's attention turned to the invasion of Iraq, Rashid said.
Extremist sanctuaries became well-established in Pakistan's border regions during the holy war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when insurgents were heavily armed and bankrolled by the CIA through Pakistan's army and intelligence services.
In a region with 6,000 madrassas, or Islamic schools, and about 600,000 students, there is a rich recruiting base for al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are seeking to extend their influence across Pakistan, said Thomas Johnson, a research professor and Pashtun scholar at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
In April, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported that the Bush administration had failed to develop a comprehensive plan to eradicate the terrorist threat and close the havens in Pakistan's border regions.
But officials say the United States has little choice but to be patient and help as it can. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has provided $10.5 billion to Pakistan, mostly in military aid. The United States has pledged $750 million to ease what the State Department says are "abysmal social conditions" in the border regions, but much of it is being held up because of terrorist attacks there.
A major step, State Department officials say, would be the establishment of free-trade zones in the border areas, but legislation authorizing such zones is stalled in Congress and given little chance of passage, State Department officials say.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is sending several dozen trainers to Pakistan this summer to train the Pakistani army and the Frontier Corps, which patrols the border regions, in counterinsurgency tactics. But analysts such as Rashid say the Frontier Corps, a locally based militia, is heavily infiltrated by extremists.
"This is a long-term strategy with short-term risks," said a Pentagon expert on the region. "It's going to be hard going."