Last September, when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited the White House to tout a controversial plan for driving al-Qaeda from his country, President Bush responded at a joint news conference with a trademark profession of faith. When Musharraf "looks me in the eye" and says there "won't be a Taliban and there won't be an al-Qaeda, I believe him," Bush said.
Ten months later, the administration's top terrorism official gave reporters a starkly different view of that plan, declaring that al-Qaeda had established a safe haven inside the very country that Bush had hailed as a "strong partner" in the war on terrorism. Musharraf's anti-terrorism plan "hasn't worked for Pakistan. It hasn't worked for the United States," Frances Fragos Townsend, White House homeland security adviser, said in late July.
The change in the administration's public tone came after months of internal U.S. discussion and quiet diplomacy to pressure a key ally into taking direct action against what analysts say was a newly assertive al-Qaeda rebuilding a stronghold to plan attacks against Western targets — a disconcerting replay of the period before Sept. 11, 2001.
As classified reports throughout the past year showed al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters opening new training camps and moving operatives and money across the Afghan border, the White House dispatched a stream of high-powered officials to Islamabad to pressure a reluctant Musharraf into changing course.
When the diplomatic campaign finally failed, the administration took a more dramatic step. After years of professing uncertainty about the whereabouts of al-Qaeda's commanders, it publicly declared in excerpts of a new National Intelligence Estimate what analysts had long believed: The terrorist group had ensconced itself in a remote mountain enclave ostensibly under Pakistani control. In late spring, drafts of that document were deliberately altered to reveal this conclusion, a move that "changed the complexion" of the nearly finished report, a senior intelligence official familiar with the revisions said.
The July 17 U.S. claim sparked outrage in Islamabad but helped yield the result that U.S. officials sought. Musharraf abandoned his truce with tribal leaders and on July 19 formally launched a military offensive aimed at breaking the terrorists' grip on the frontier provinces.
The events leading to the public confrontation with Pakistan — including the alarming evidence of al-Qaeda and Taliban retrenchment in northern Pakistan — were described in new detail by more than a half-dozen senior administration and intelligence officials. None would talk about the subject on the record, citing the sensitivity of the bilateral relationship and the political fallout from the intelligence assessment.
Pakistani officials say the change in tactics had nothing to do with U.S. pressure, and they insist that Musharraf's plan for using tribal militias to drive out al-Qaeda remains viable. "We are as committed to defeating terrorism as the United States is, because the threat to us is far greater," Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, said in an interview.
But U.S. officials say Musharraf's new offensive is already having a more tangible impact than months of diplomacy and subtle pressure on tribal chieftains and mullahs in remote villages. After a spike in terrorists' cross-border raids into Afghanistan over the past year — including a doubling of the number of attacks in June compared with the previous year — violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border leveled off last month.
Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. conventional forces in Afghanistan, recently linked that progress to the start of the Pakistani offensive. Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Rodriguez also said that U.S. and Pakistani forces were doing a better job of sharing intelligence and coordinating their response to Taliban attacks, adding that the United States saw no need to deploy its forces on the Pakistani side of the border.
"They're a sovereign country," he said, "and they're doing a military operation now to provide better security there."
An increase in al-Qaeda activity
The stream of high-powered visitors who flew from Washington to Islamabad early this year bore no good news for Musharraf. Starting with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Feb. 12, and followed closely by Vice President Cheney and others, the Americans showed Musharraf sensitive intelligence revealing a substantial increase in al-Qaeda activity in the country's west.
Cheney and the other visitors warned Musharraf that his deal with the region's largely autonomous tribal chiefs months earlier had broken down. Under the agreement, Musharraf promised economic and military aid to the tribes and pledged to pull back Pakistani troops if local leaders kept al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters out.
The Bush administration was initially optimistic about the accord, endorsing in particular the idea of empowering local forces to fight terrorists. But by early this year, U.S. analysts had collected a mountain of evidence showing that the initiative had backfired.
Intelligence gleaned from captured Taliban fighters, communications intercepts and overhead surveillance showed that the terrorists had exploited the vacuum created by departing Pakistani troops. Using a combination of bribes and intimidation, foreign fighters had secured the protection of tribal leaders and had begun boldly rebuilding a network largely dismantled during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Taliban militants had renewed the smuggling of weapons and explosives for attacks inside Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda members were traveling to and from the region by air, using Pakistani airports, and over land through Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran, reports showed.
Al-Qaeda's expanding infrastructure in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas was concentrated in a region known as North Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan. But the groups were more mobile and their training camps smaller than in the period before 2001. "These people adapt to the measures that the Pakistanis and we have pushed against them: how they congregate, how they train, how they move money," one official said.
The U.S. analysts also concluded that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had successfully replaced upper-level officials and lieutenants that U.S. and allied forces had captured or killed over the years. Many were fighters from Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s who had returned to bin Laden's side. They included Uzbeks and other Central Asians, as well as Arabs.
Al-Qaeda's bench strength, the analysts realized, was not deep, but it was very wide. Its new lieutenants were assigned regional responsibilities across the world and were charged with planning operations, often a year to a year and a half in advance. They were "recruiting like mad, and training," one intelligence official said.
‘Evaluating the deal’
The intelligence was an eye-opener for Musharraf, though he already sensed the deal was in trouble, said officials familiar with the meetings. But Musharraf did not promise a swift response. The Pakistani president said he was "evaluating the deal" and "making adjustments," but cautiously: There were tribal and ethnic sensitivities to consider, and the risk of further army deaths, beyond the hundreds killed in the tribal areas in recent years.
Musharraf also had a complaint of his own: His leverage over the tribal militants had slipped because of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Foreign fear of the might of the U.S. military, felt throughout the Muslim world immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was dissipating as U.S. troops became increasingly bogged down in Iraq. Now, he said, tribal leaders who had once cooperated with Musharraf because of his alliance with the Americans saw little reason to be afraid.
Neither U.S. nor Pakistani officials raised their voices. "They were very respectful," one U.S. official said. "It was just: 'Here's the information. Let's talk and see how we can move forward.'"
But internally, the Bush administration was unsure how much pressure to apply and, indeed, how useful an ally Musharraf had turned out to be.
On one side were U.S. diplomats and policymakers, particularly at the White House, who said Musharraf's commitment to the fight is genuine. While his democratic credentials are less than ideal — the career army general came to power in a military coup — he increased civil freedoms and brought economic reforms that allowed Pakistan's middle and professional classes to flourish, his U.S. supporters argued. Without the general, they worried, the crucial U.S.-Pakistan partnership could collapse.
"To say we've been supporting Musharraf is simplistic," said Xenia Dormandy, who recently left a position as the National Security Council's director for South Asia. "Musharraf has spent six years walking a fine line between a rock and a hard place. Could we push him more? You won't know the answer until you've pushed him too hard and he collapses."
On the other side were intelligence and military officials increasingly frustrated by what they viewed as Pakistan's half-hearted effort in the fight against terrorism. They preferred using a hammer instead of kid gloves in Islamabad, arguing that Musharraf — with a diverse and fractured opposition — was politically strong enough to weather the fallout from taking a more aggressive stance.
The difference of views was mostly about tactics, since U.S. diplomats and intelligence specialists both worried that the next Pakistani leader will be less cooperative. "He's not perfect," one defense official said. "But we have to get away from the view that other countries need to see the world exactly as we do."
Musharraf's turnaround in the end was pushed along by his own worries that conservative Muslims posed a new domestic threat, U.S. intelligence specialists said. A spate of terrorist bombings around the country coincided with the occupation by student militants of the Red Mosque in the capital, and Musharraf — partly to shore up his support within the army — decided to crack down.
In the tribal areas, Musharraf deployed two additional brigades, bringing the number of troops in the region to 100,000. In preparation for entering tribal villages, the troops have reoccupied abandoned checkpoints and dug trenches, an administration official said. In just more than one week of conflict, more than 200 Pakistani troops have been killed, U.S. officials said.
Pakistan continues to assert that the tribal agreement was the correct approach, however, and its leaders still hope to salvage portions of the pact.
As a long-term strategy, it remains important to try to win over the people of the tribal areas, and for that "you need a number of carrots as well as sticks," said Durrani, the ambassador.
Durrani said Pakistani intelligence officials are not convinced that al-Qaeda's Pakistan operations are as elaborate as U.S. experts believe. "We say there are no safe havens," he said. "Maybe there are al-Qaeda people hiding in caves or running for their lives, but they aren't operating in the open because they can't."
Durrani contends that whatever al-Qaeda elements do exist in Pakistan will soon be driven out or rendered ineffective.
U.S. officials who have tracked terrorists' movements in Pakistan say they are closely monitoring the fresh deployments of Pakistani troops to see what impact they will have. "The presence of new divisions has made the locals nervous, so the level of activity is down," one U.S. defense official said. "But unless the Pakistanis remain active, this may just be a lull."
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.