More must be done to go after al-Qaida, which is trying to establish training camps and other operations in some of Pakistan’s most ungoverned territory, the new U.S. spy chief said Tuesday.
“It’s something we’re very worried about and very concerned about,” Mike McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a hearing on global threats.
McConnell said the United States believes al-Qaida’s top two leaders — Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri — are hiding in the rugged frontiers of northwestern Pakistan and are attempting to establish an operational base there. He noted that al-Qaida’s camps are in an area that has never been governed by any state or outside power.
McConnell’s push for action along the Afghan-Pakistani border echoed concerns raised by Vice President Dick Cheney during a face-to-face meeting Monday with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Cheney was accompanied by Deputy CIA Director Stephen Kappes — a sign that intelligence played a strong role in the case made to Musharraf.
'Done the maximum'
Musharraf has insisted his forces have already “done the maximum” possible against extremists in their territory, and he said other allies also shoulder responsibility in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
But U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about intelligence suggesting the Taliban and al-Qaida plan a spring offensive against allied forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
They are also worried about the autonomy of al-Qaida and Taliban operatives in Pakistan after the government signed a peace deal with the tribal leaders of the region, North Waziristan, in September.
In that agreement, tribal elders promised to respect the supremacy of the Pakistani government and curtail attacks in Afghanistan. In return, Musharraf gave back some of the tribes’ weapons, released some prisoners and withdrew from posts inside North Waziristan.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the tribes have not abided by most of the agreement’s terms. And McConnell said U.S. intelligence believes al-Qaida’s training and related capabilities increased as a result of the deal.
Lawmakers were skeptical, too.
“Long-term prospects for eliminating the Taliban threat appear dim so long as the sanctuary remains in Pakistan, and there are no encouraging signs that Pakistan is eliminating it,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Gaining strength in northwest frontier
In his first month as national intelligence director, McConnell said he’s been briefed about al-Qaida’s efforts to reconstitute itself in Pakistan’s northwest frontier.
He said the group does not have the thousands of fighters, training in multiple camps, as they did in Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. “That’s gone,” he said.
But McConnell said U.S. intelligence believes al-Qaida still has volunteers committed to carrying out “heinous attacks” akin to Sept. 11, 2001. And while three-quarters of al-Qaida’s leaders have been taken out, they have been replaced by equally committed jihadists. The upside: McConnell said the new generation doesn’t have as much experience.
Pressuring al-Qaida is not without its risks for Musharraf, who faces an election this fall. McConnell acknowledged that efforts to pursue the terror group must be balanced with the desire to keep Musharraf — a moderate and a U.S. ally — in charge of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal.
The testimony from Maples and McConnell was part of the Senate panel’s annual review of global threats, including the latest assessments on Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Touching on those hot spots, they said:
- Iraqi troops are taking the lead in securing parts of their country, but much work remains to improve the number and quality of those forces. “They are better today than they were a year ago, but they are still not where we need them to be,” McConnell said.
Maples said two of the three brigades promised by Iraq have moved into Baghdad as part of the new security plan, but he acknowledged that those units have only 43 percent to 82 percent of their intended troops, according to ranges he has seen.
- On Iran, McConnell said that the regime could develop a nuclear weapon early in the next decade, but it will more likely take the country’s scientists until 2015. But it’s not clear whether the country will have a delivery system at the same time.
- Maples said the United States is seeing North Korea take initial steps to comply with the Feb. 13 agreement on its nuclear program, including inspection of its plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear facility. But there are other steps to which the U.S. will have to pay close attention, he said.
McConnell’s top adviser on North Korea, Joseph DeTrani, said the U.S. continues to insist that North Korea declare all of its nuclear programs. But he backtracked a bit from a previous U.S. view of analysts, who had “high confidence” that North Korea was buying material for a uranium production program.
Now, he said, the U.S. believes the program exists “at the midconfidence level.”