No single issue that has fueled the flames of anti-Americanism in Pakistan more than the bombings of their country by our Predator drones. Since President Obama took office, there have been at least sixteen Predator strikes, which have killed about 160 people and led to widespread protests around the country. More serious than the wave of anti-Americanism is the instability that the continuing Predator strikes have brought to the fragile civilian government of President Zardari.
There is real evidence that the air strikes have done substantial damage to the leadership of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and they are consistent with the policy announced by President Obama during his campaign that he would take the fight to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, even if it meant violating the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan. However, the value of the strikes may be diminishing, especially in relation to the growing anger in Pakistan which itself pushes people toward the extremists.
Colonel David Kilcullen, formerly a senior adviser to General Petraeus, the US regional commander, in testimony to Congress, said "We need to call off the drones." He added that "The current path that we are on is leading us to loss of Pakistani government control over its own population." While a halt in the air assaults, even a temporary one, might give a reprieve to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it may be a necessary step toward stabilizing the Pakistani government.
The high-level meetings this week between President Obama, President Zardari and Afghan President Karzai represent an important challenge to all three of the leaders, and the American airstrikes are central to that challenge. Zardari must convince both Obama and Karzai that he is serious about stemming the flow of extremism inside Pakistan, and that he will have the backing in that effort from both the Pakistani military and intelligence services. Karzai must sign on to a regional solution to the crisis, and agree to the greater oversight of the funding that has been pouring into his country.
Perhaps the greatest test will be for President Obama, who will have to demonstrate not only to those in the region, but also to the American people and the rest of the world, that he can be tough in taking the battle to extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and at the same time provide the political, military and economic support to governments on the front line. Finally, he needs to show the flexibility to adjust his course in midstream -- in this case, by grounding the Predators as a gesture of goodwill to the nation of Pakistan. Even though it might slow the progress we have made in damaging the leadership of Al-Qaeda and Taliban, in the long run it will prove our respect for and commitment to the Pakistani people. Because, like it or not, we are in this struggle for the long run.