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With flooding, Pakistan focus on fighting terror at risk

By Pam Benson, CNN National Security Producer
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Aid trickles into flood ravaged Pakistan
  • Massive flooding and efforts to help victims is stretching Pakistan's military
  • Some experts say that may hamper Pakistan's fight against terrorists and insurgents
  • One analyst: "The Taliban has always used these pauses to regroup, restock"
  • But some U.S. officials say Pakistan can deal with flooding and the terror fight if it gets help

Washington (CNN) -- Pakistan's ability to keep up the pressure on terrorists and insurgents within the country could be severely hampered by the enormity of coping with the devastating floods creating havoc in the country.

U.S. government officials and regional experts acknowledge the Pakistani military will be stretched thin as it devotes more and more resources to providing humanitarian aid to the 20 million people impacted by the deluge. The military is the only entity within Pakistan seen as having the capability to respond to a disaster of this scale. But its efforts could come at the expense of the counterterrorism campaign.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman conceded that the Pakistani military is extremely busy dealing with the crisis, and said, "I can't rule out some sort of impact" on the fight against insurgents in Pakistan.

But another U.S. official maintained, "we don't believe they're taking their eye off the terrorist ball. They're continuing to fight extremists at the same time they fight the effects of flooding."

Over the past year, the Pakistani army has pursued more aggressive campaigns against the Taliban in the Swat Valley, South Waziristan and Bajour. However Bob Grenier, the CIA's former station chief in Islamabad, said the military's ability to continue to exert heavy pressure on the militants will be hampered by the floods.

Video: Photographer focuses on flood
Video: Pakistan aid coming, more needed
Video: Millions waiting for aid in Pakistan
Video: Deluge and despair in Pakistan

"They're going to be greatly distracted by the need to be engaged in relief operations," said Grenier.

If the Pakistani's have to take a large number of troops out of the tribal regions, it will no doubt take some of the pressure off of the Taliban, CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen said.

"The Taliban has always used these pauses to regroup, restock -- they have in the past," he said.

A senior U.S. administration official said, "We continue to work with Pakistan going after extremists. We don't want to give them (the extremists) any breathing space."

The CIA has continued its campaign in the region along the border with Afghanistan where al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militants are said to be. After a brief cessation, the CIA's drone missile strikes resumed last weekend, targeting militants in North Waziristan. However, U.S. officials recognize that the battle against the insurgency will not be successful without a sustained effort by the Pakistani military on the ground.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Pakistan is capable of dealing with both the terrorism problem and the flooding if it receives adequate assistance.

"It's a challenge, but with the help of the international community, the Pakistani government can handle both."

The U.S. is leading the international community in providing assistance to flood victims, but so far the international relief efforts fall way short of the projected needs, placing even more of a burden on the weak Pakistani government.

Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel says the U.S. has to do everything in its power to help, because of the critical importance of Pakistan.

"This is a country with more terrorists per square mile than any other country in the world. This is the home of Osama bin Laden, this is a country with the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, and a country that has been the nuclear pirate of all time," said Riedel. He added that if Pakistan can't meet the challenge, "the Islamic militancy will grow."

There is concern that the government is so overwhelmed and unable to provide timely and adequate relief that terrorist organizations will try to fill the gap and gain wider public support. Peter Bergen pointed to well established groups in Pakistan like Lashkar-e-Taiba.

"They have a large social welfare infrastructure that they can engage that is more efficient than the government," said Bergen.

Former CIA operative Grenier agreed that militants might try to take advantage of the situation, but said there are a limited number of organizations capable of filling the gap and the disaster is so extensive, the impact would be highly localized.

"The level of devastation is so wide spread that just about anything anybody, any of these groups would do...would only have a marginal effect, but it could be a significant effect in the places where they are actually able to operate," Grenier said.

Grenier also pointed out that in the aftermath of the floods, it would be very difficult for the Pakistan government to take action against any group that gained wider public support because of the help it provided during the crisis.

An American official said so far, the United States isn't seeing much activity on the part of extremists. "While we need to keep a close eye on the possibility that militants might try to take advantage of this natural disaster, we don't see signs at this point that they're mustering the resources to do so."

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson was more blunt with reporters. "I think these stories about extremist organizations being the only players out there are greatly exaggerated, if not flatly untrue."

Both Grenier and Bergen believe the disaster could have the benefit of improving public perceptions of the United States and the Pakistani army -- the two key players in the battle against insurgents in the country. When the U.S. provided significant aide after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the favorable view of the United States increased dramatically. Bergen said the same thing could happen this time around.

"Clearly the United States had taken the lead in this ... and is doing quite a fair amount," said Bergen.

Grenier said major investments in humanitarian operations will have a greater and more visible impact on people at the grassroots levels, more so than the long-term infrastructure programs the United States has been engaged in.

As for the Pakistani army, Bergen predicts it "will come out of this looking pretty well since they will be doing most of the heavy lifting."

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence and State Department Producer Laurie Ure contributed to this report.