Pakistan Cutting Back Its Battle Against Al Qaeda
More and more it’s looking as if Pakistan under President Pervez Musharraf is downgrading its battle against Al Qaeda — effectively removing one of the forefronts of American efforts to find and thwart Osama bin Laden and leaving this vital country more and more open to be a safe haven for the terrorist chief and his trainees.
The Los Angeles Times reports of signs of a major cutback due to the beset Pakistan government’s political crises:
Political turmoil and a spate of brazen attacks by Taliban fighters are forcing Pakistan’s president to scale back his government’s pursuit of Al Qaeda, according to U.S. intelligence officials who fear that the terrorist network will be able to accelerate its efforts to rebuild and plot new attacks.
The development threatens a pillar of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy, which has depended on Pakistan to play a lead role in keeping Al Qaeda under pressure to reduce its ability to coordinate strikes.
Intelligence officials have told the Times that Musharraf is now “too vulnerable” to participate full-strength with the U.S. in the terrorism war because he is too politically vulnerable, is facing upcoming elections and is under pressure to step down. Other factors: he has been the target of various assassination attempts, many in Pakistan reportedly sympathize more with Al Qaeda than they do with the United States, and Osama bin Laden recently declared virtual war on him.
At the same time, the Pakistani military has suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks at the hands of militants in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda figures are believed to be hiding.
U.S. intelligence officials said the conditions that have allowed Al Qaeda to regain strength are likely to persist, enabling it to continue training foreign fighters and plot new attacks.
“We are worried,” said a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official who closely monitors Pakistan’s pursuit of Al Qaeda in the rugged frontier region. The official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
“I think the prospect for aggressive action . . . is probably not good, no matter what,” said the official, referring to the federally administered tribal areas where Al Qaeda is particularly strong.
Part of the problem: if there is a substantive change in political players, the war on terror could suffer:
If Musharraf is removed from office or agrees to a power-sharing arrangement with political foes, the “change in government could well mean a diminution of cooperation on counter-terrorism,” the official added.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said Pakistani retrenchment appears to have begun.
“We’re already beginning to see some signs of that,” the official said, citing a recent series of reversals by the Pakistan military.
“In the next few days, we’re probably going to see a withdrawal of forces that the Pakistanis put there,” the intelligence official said, adding that the move could solidify a “safe haven, where the [Al Qaeda] leadership is secure, operational planners can do their business, and foreigners can come in and be trained and redeploy to the West.”
If so, it would be the bitterest of bitter ironies.
The United States was attacked on 911, it went after the Taliban in Afghanistan and ejected them from power. A Pakistan reluctant to get too involved was made an offer it could not refuse by Washington. The U.S. moved resources from Afghanistan to fight the war in Iraq. And, in the end, it will be ironic if Pakistan becomes the “new Afghanistan” — not quite as dominated as Afghanistan but definitely a new terrorist hub, left alone by a fearful government and largely “untouchable” by the United States.
And scaling back its operations in the war on terror would be popular in Pakistan domestically, too:
The prevailing view among U.S. intelligence analysts is that Musharraf probably will remain in power, but in a significantly weakened position that may require him to embrace democratic reforms and share authority with one or more political rivals, U.S. officials said.
Such an arrangement would deprive Musharraf of the dictatorial power he has wielded, which enabled him to contain the political cost of carrying out counter-terrorism operations at the behest of the United States.
…Polls in Pakistan suggest that Bin Laden is more popular than many of the Muslim nation’s politicians, and analysts say it is extremely difficult for the beleaguered Musharraf to remain aligned with the U.S.
“From a domestic politics perspective, sustained Pakistani action against Al Qaeda in [the tribal areas] would be suicidal,” said Seth Jones, an expert on terrorism and Pakistan at Rand Corp. “It would only increase hatred against his regime at the precise moment when he is politically weakest.”
The U.S. has a lot invested in Pakistan. It is considered one of the U.S.’ most-loyal allies in the Muslim world. And it has also received some $5.6 billion in U.S. aid. Intelligence officials interviewed by the Times don’t think Pakistan will drop the anti-terrorism effort — it is a national security issue for them — but will significantly cut back.
But that in itself will pose a problem:
“Without significant steps to clear and hold territory within [the tribal areas], I don’t believe Al Qaeda can be defeated or significantly weakened,” said Jones, the Rand Corp. expert. “Consequently, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.”