According to a new draft intelligence report, al-Qaida has reconstituted itself over the last few years in the mountainous tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. This comes as no real surprise, given the September 2006 agreement between the tribal chiefs in the region and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf agreed to withdraw his military forces from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and in return the tribal chiefs committed to prevent “militants" from operating in the region or conducting cross-border operations into Afghanistan.
Musharraf has lived up to his part; the tribal chiefs have not. Al-Qaida and its Pakistani sympathizers have had free rein in the area, creating a safe haven virtually outside Pakistani jurisdiction. They have established training camps for an international cadre (including Britons of Pakistani descent involved in last year’s lethal attacks in London), and supported Taliban raids into Afghanistan.
Let’s assume the intelligence draft is accurate — it may or may not be. I spent almost three decades in the intelligence community and can attest that many drafts barely resemble the finished product. According to the draft, al-Qaida is “considerably operationally stronger than a year ago," has “regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," and has created “the most robust training program since 2001…." I don’t think there is any doubt that al-Qaida is stronger today than a year ago, nor is there any question that al-Qaida has reconstituted itself in the barely sovereign area of Pakistan. The real issue is the fact that the Pakistani government has been either unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
That may have changed in the last week. Musharraf’s firm handling of the Red Mosque standoff in Islamabad has caused an outcry among the fundamentalist Muslims in the country, especially in the tribal areas. Several of the tribal chiefs have declared the September 2006 deal with Islamabad over. There has been an outbreak of attacks against government targets, including two attempts on Musharraf’s life just this month. In response, Pakistani troops have moved into the border area.
This is good news. Hopefully Musharraf will order his forces into the region in earnest and root out not only the Pakistani militants that are causing him problems, but also against the al-Qaida members as well. As long as al-Qaida has a safe haven in Pakistan, there will be no resolution to al-Qaida’s threat to the United States and the West. As long as the Taliban has a safe haven in Pakistan, there will be no resolution to the ongoing violence in neighboring Afghanistan.
Should Musharraf make the decision to root out al-Qaida from the tribal areas, the United States should not only offer verbal encouragement (as we have) but offer tangible support as well. That tangible support should include intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, airstrikes as needed, and if required to eliminate al-Qaida for good, U.S. ground forces moving in from Afghanistan.
There is no substitute for American troops to ensure the job gets done right. We learned that lesson in the fighting in Tora Bora in December 2001. It was American miscalculation of the reliability of our Northern Alliance allies in the fight at Tora Bora that allowed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and his entourage to escape into Pakistan. Remember the pledge from the Northern Alliance that bin Laden’s capture/surrender was a foregone conclusion, the only issue was how it was to be handled? There were insufficient American troops on the ground, we had halted the devastating airstrikes on the area awaiting the handover, and lo and behold, something happened — I don’t know what, tribal loyalties, money changing hands, whatever — but bin Laden slipped away into Pakistan. The al-Qaida threat should have been eliminated right then, but that camel has slipped its hobble.
If the intelligence estimate is true, al-Qaida still presents a clear and present danger to the United States. We may now have a short window of opportunity to move against al-Qaida’s leadership, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, once and for all. This time, let’s not miss.