Since Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Pakistan has largely fallen off the front pages. But make no mistake about it, the situation inside Pakistan remains a dangerous threat to American security.
Apparently in response to those fears, SecDef Robert Gates yesterday raised the possibility that U.S. troops may be "invited" by Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to combat Al Qaeda and Taliban extremists who have taken refuge along the Pakistan-Afghani border.
Gates' bombshell seems to have gone largely unreported. Why, because just a few days earlier, Musharraf had rejected the notion that he would entertain the idea of U.S. troops on Pakistani soil.
So what is going on here?
First, Islamic extremists, including in all likelihood, the leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, have more or less set up permanent shop in the wild west of Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan. Musharraf admits that his forces are unable and he is unwilling to take on Al Qaeda and have been consistently attacked by growing ranks of extremists who have taken a huge toll of Pakistani military sent to the area to combat them. U.S. and NATO troops are already stretched too thin inside Afghanistan to combat the Taliban, and Gates is signaling that he wants to transfer more U.S. troops to do what we should have done years ago: go after Bin Laden once and for all and take down his rebuilt command structure that has reconstituted itself. (Note to FL GOP: Mr. Guiliani, seems to have come up real short on any plan to get Bin Laden other than to yak and yak about it!) .
Second, a new spring offensive by the Taliban in Afghanistan, fueled by a formidable Taliban/Al Qaeda alliance, may further undermine the shaky hold that Afghan's president, Hamid Karzai has on the sourthern part of his country. NATO forces are inaequate to the job and cutting off the supply lines inside Pakistan apparently represents Gates' new strategy for stemming the Taliban spring offensive.
Third, although Musharraf cannot succumb politically to US pressure to have US troops enter Pakistan since he would risk further inflaming his already dicey domestic political situation, he grudgingly acknowledges that U.S. troops can engage in "hot pursuit" against extremists crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan -- something that Barack Obama already has called for except Obama includes Al Qaeda in his equation, not just the Taliban.
All of this is to say that the real war against Al Qaeda has yet to be fought where it counts -- in Pakistan and in an area where Musharraf has lost virtually total control. Whether Gates' trial balloon will fly or be shot down remains to be seen, but, unlike his predecessor Rumsfeld, Gates gets it. Is Bush planning an "October Surprise" to capture or kill Bin Laden with a division or three of US troops hunting him down between now and the eve of the presidential elections? Stay tuned!