U.S. Predator strikes against high-level al Qaeda targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan are disrupting the group’s operations, but the terrorist organization has responded by stepping up its efforts to further destabilize an already fragile Pakistani government.

  Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez at the New York Times report that senior Pakistani intelligence officials believe the al Qaeda leaders’ younger and less experienced replacements are now focusing their energies on destabilizing Pakistan rather than striking at the West.  They write:

While the Pakistani analysis agreed with Mr. Blair’s conclusion that Al Qaeda’s ability to conduct large-scale attacks against the United States was most likely degraded, it also signaled no cessation to the attacks by Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban aimed at undermining Pakistan’s government.

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Qaeda leaders have also increased their financing and logistical support for the Taliban and other militant groups, having come to see the survival of Qaeda sanctuaries as dependent on the ability of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan to hold territory.

“It’s morphing into a monster and growing uglier,” said one senior Pakistani intelligence official.

This article comes on the heels of the Pakistan government’s worrisome truce with the Taliban in Swat and the eruption of protests and turbulence in the Punjab province following the Pakistan Supreme Court’s controversial decision to effectively exclude Shabaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif of the opposition PML-N party from the political process.  These developments dramatically underscore the severity of Pakistan’s plight and reinforce the message of the recently-released Atlantic Council Pakistan Report that calls for urgent assistance to provide Pakistan with the tools needed to tackle its rapidly mounting challenges.

While it has long been acknowledged in Washington that the deeply unpopular Predator strikes are a public relations nightmare for the Pakistani government, U.S. officials have justified their importance by insisting that the benefits of the attacks outweigh their costs.  If the new leadership of al Qaeda is able to accelerate the decline of an already floundering Zardari government, the U.S. may find its cost-benefit analysis to have changed.  After all, terrorist strikes on the distant U.S. homeland are extremely difficult to execute and require a great deal of careful planning.  But U.S. security forces are far less able to frustrate more sophisticated cooperation between al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban in areas like Swat and prevent more audacious attacks on soft targets in urban Pakistan, events which would greatly destabilize Pakistan’s government.

If the U.S. is to avoid a nightmare scenario where Pakistan’s government gradually loses control due to enhanced attacks by al Qaeda and Taliban militants, it must act quickly and wisely to enhance Pakistan’s ability to make this fight its own.  Its economy needs to recover from a deep slump, which if it continues will nullify all other efforts against militancy as well.  Time is of the essence and up to $4 billion in annual additional resources will be needed.  Among other things, this rapid aid should enhance assistance for building up Pakistan’s police force.  The Atlantic Council’s Pakistan Report estimates that “the government of Asif Zardari has between 6-12 months to put in place and implement security and economic policies or face the very real prospect of domestic and political turbulence.”  In reality, it may have even less time than that, especially if other domestic or external shocks occur.

One such shock was Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision  nullifying the election of PML-N’s Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister of the Punjab province and continuing the ban on PML-N Chairman Nawaz Sharif in national politics.  Protests continued on Thursday against this decision.  These protests, as well as a long-planned lawyer’s protest on March 12, could put more pressure on the government and worsen tensions between the dominant Punjab province, which strongly supports the Sharif brothers, and the rest of the country.

American officials are increasingly aware of the need to bolster aid and assistance to Pakistan, particularly Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who served as honorary co-chairman of the Atlantic Council’s new report.  However, friends of Pakistan in the U.S. Congress will find their case much easier to make if Pakistan’s politicians put their own house in order first.  While the Atlantic Council report makes clear that U.S. assistance to Pakistan must not be tied to any one individual or government and must be focused on the long-term relationship, infighting among Pakistan’s politicians weakens U.S. confidence in Pakistan’s government and provides skeptics with more excuses to withhold further aid from Pakistan that it so badly needs.  Pakistan’s squabbling politicians need to understand that no matter who wins the battles among themselves, they will all lose the war if they are not able to find common ground and overcome al Qaeda’s attempt to undercut their rule.

Jeff Lightfoot is assistant director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.