Until just recently, the US treaded lightly in pursuing Taliban and al-Qaeda targets across the border from Afghanistan nto Pakistan, either on foot or by missile. Washington did not want to disturb the stability of the friendly Musharraf regime by making the war on Islamist radicals even more unpopular in Pakistan. With democracy making Musharraf more irrelevant by the day, the US has shown much less concern for Pakistani sensibilities, acting more aggressively than ever:

The United States has escalated its unilateral strikes against al-Qaeda members and fighters operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, partly because of anxieties that Pakistan’s new leaders will insist on scaling back military operations in that country, according to U.S. officials.

Washington is worried that pro-Western President Pervez Musharraf, who has generally supported the U.S. strikes, will almost certainly have reduced powers in the months ahead, and so it wants to inflict as much damage as it can to al-Qaeda’s network now, the officials said.

Over the past two months, U.S.-controlled Predator aircraft are known to have struck at least three sites used by al-Qaeda operatives. The moves followed a tacit understanding with Musharraf and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani that allows U.S. strikes on foreign fighters operating in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban, the officials said.

About 45 Arab, Afghan and other foreign fighters have been killed in the attacks, all near the Afghan border, U.S. and Pakistani officials said. The goal was partly to jar loose information on senior al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, by forcing them to move in ways that U.S. intelligence analysts can detect. Local sources are providing better information to guide the strikes, the officials said.

The strategy is called the “shake the tree” method, a way to make enough disturbance to force everyone to find new shelter. In the confusion, intelligence assets hope to flush targets into the open and eliminate them quickly. Several of the sources for the Washington Post give pessimistic odds for finding Osama bin Laden or senior AQ leadership, but it has already killed the #3 man in the organization last month.

Musharraf knows his days are numbered in power, and has proven a little more cooperative as a result. Both he and his Army replacement, General Kiyani, have agreed to let the US strike at AQ and foreign-fighter targets. They do not want the US to attack Pakistani Taliban militants, for two reasons. First, the deaths of foreign terrorists do not enrage the public to the same extent as the deaths of Pakistanis. Pakistanis see the foreign fighters as meddlers and troublemakers and do not excessively mourn their loss. Reports of Iraqi-style Awakening movements in the border areas of Waziristan and North West Frontier Province give hope that Pakistanis may eventually eject the foreigners from their midst.

Second, the Pakistani Taliban has political connections that make military confrontations difficult, even for Kiyani and Musharraf. Even Baitullah Mehsud has sympathizers in mainstream politics, and an American attack on his strongholds would create a political disaster. The PPP, whose leader got assassinated by Mehsud, wants to initiate talks with tribal elders in Taliban areas to bring them into the political process. The Pakistanis see American attacks as interference with their attempts to find unity with their Islamist citizens and unnecessarily provocative, pushing them towards radicalism rather than engagement.

It’s a tightrope act, but we cannot just allow the problem to fester in Pakistan. The trick is to keep our actions from making it worse.