On Aug. 6, 2001, President George W. Bush, on holiday at his Crawford ranch, received a CIA briefing entitled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S."
On Aug. 6, 2001, President George W. Bush, on holiday at his Crawford ranch, received a CIA briefing entitled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S." He did not interrupt his vacation. Barely a month later came the most momentous day in post-Cold War U.S. history.
Seven years, two ground wars, 4,700 U.S. troop deaths and nearly a trillion dollars later, Washington faces a situation analogous to that experienced in 2001, say national-security experts, including some former Bush administration officials. Al Qaeda enjoys a safe haven in Pakistan, where its operational planning likely proceeds apace, and the United States does not have good military options for combating it.
Avoiding a repeat of 9/11, they say, requires a realignment in Pakistan policy that the Bush administration appears to have no appetite for pursuing. Taken together, that means that the measures necessary to prevent an attack are politically unpalatable; while the politically palatable measures are strategically perilous — much like the choices confronting policy-makers worried about Al Qaeda before 9/11.
"It’s a situation
On Friday, the Government Accountability Office released a report detailing the lack of U.S. strategy toward Pakistan and the concurrent rise in Al Qaeda’s fortunes. The title befit its assessment: "The United States Lacks a Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas."
No comprehensive plan for meeting U.S. national security goals in the FATA has been developed, as stipulated by the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (2003), called for by an independent commission (2004), and mandated by congressional legislation (2007). Furthermore, Congress created the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2004 specifically to develop comprehensive plans to combat terrorism. However, neither the National Security Council (NSC), NCTC, nor other executive branch departments have developed a comprehensive plan that includes all elements of national power—diplomatic, military, intelligence, development assistance, economic, and law enforcement support—called for by the various national security strategies and Congress.
Al Qaeda is now using the Pakistani safe haven to put the last element necessary to launch another attack against America into place, including the identification, training and positioning of Western operatives for an attack," the GAO summarized a report from the director of national intelligence as saying.
That still unreleased assessment reportedly "stated that Al Qaeda is most likely using the FATA [federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan] to plot terrorist attacks against political, economic and infrastructure targets in America ‘designed to produce mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the population.’"
Pakistan experts fear the deterioration of a delicate political-military situation in the tribal areas of Pakistan believed to shelter Osama bin Laden. Last week, NATO forces in Afghanistan’s Kunar province crossed the porous Afghan-Pakistan border in pursuit of fleeing Taliban and possible Al Qaeda guerrillas, bringing attack helicopters for air support.
It was one of an occasional number of cross-border "hot pursuit" raids that the tribal Pashtuns are not prepared to support, according to New York University’s Barnett Rubin, a South Asia specialist. "The U.S. has pressured the Pakistani military [to conduct] operations," Rubin said in a conference call Thursday, "but they’re undertaking them in remote areas where the targets mix with the population. It has created quite a few civilian casualties. And those are people who welcomed those [Al Qaeda members] fleeing Afghanistan, at least initially."
Washington’s strategy toward Pakistan since 9/11 has been to prop up the dictator Pervez Musharraf. Yet a series of crises in 2007 forced a weakened Musharraf into holding elections, weakening him further. Musharraf’s approach to the jihadists in the tribal regions he does not control has been inconsistent: he has sent his forces to raid the Pashtun areas, but also signed ceasefires with militants in 2006, which U.S. commanders in Afghanistan blame for the 2007 rise in U.S. military casualties there.
The deals did not stop the creation of a new organization, the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, under the command of jihadist Beitullah Massoud, which Rubin described as "originally a hosting organization and defense organization for Al Qaeda."
Yet the new Pakistani government is leaning toward a new and more comprehensive cease-fire accord. The New York Times reported Friday that a 15-point draft agreement put forward by the government "called for an end to militant activity and an exchange of prisoners in return for the gradual withdrawal of the Pakistani military from part of the tribal region of South Waziristan." An anonymous U.S. official told the paper, "We have seen the agreements they have made before, and they do not work."
But Washington has few good options to eliminate the safe haven. Large-scale military action in Pakistan by U.S. or allied forces risks destabilizing a volatile nuclear power. There is no political support domestically for a third U.S. ground war. And U.S. ground troops and intelligence assets are already overextended from the pace of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All this reminds Beers of the situation he faced in the years leading up to 9/11. At that time, the contours of the threat from Al Qaeda were visible but a workable comprehensive strategy that politicians could embrace was not.
"The GAO piece, like the NIE on terrorism before it and the recent testimony by the DNI [Director of National Intelligence] Adm. McConnell, all represent a clear strategic warning by the Intelligence Community that Al Qaeda is alive and well and again clearly capable of attacking the United States," Beers said in an e-mail. "This message is similar to what we heard during the summer of 2001: we don’t have specifics, but we believe we are in a higher threat environment. Al Qaeda has the intent and the capability and is looking for the opportunity."
A representative from the State Dept.’s Office of Counterterrorism did not return a request for comment.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress who recently returned from a trip to Pakistan, said the U.S. had only a limited window of opportunity to radically reorient its Pakistan strategy. He advocates reorienting the U.S. aid package away from the Pakistani military primarily — where more than 90 percent of U.S. aid currently goes — and toward civilian capacity-building projects that benefit the lives of the average Pakistani.
"The consequences are cataclysmic," Katulis said. "If we maintain our posture, which I largely interpret as Musharraf-centric… the potential for U.S. misfiring has tremendous blowback. … If there were more unilateral military strikes by the U.S. at this point, it will further destabilize the situation when this new government trying get its legs and send off feelers to peel off extremists." (Full disclosure: Center for American Progress’s ThinkProgress website hosts my personal blog.)
Perhaps the most succinct assessment of the Bush administration’s priorities was offered earlier this month by Amb. Ryan Crocker during testimony to a House panel. Crocker is U.S. ambassador to Iraq, an assignment he accepted after several years’ service as ambassador to Pakistan. Asked whether the greatest threat to the U.S. from Al Qaeda came from Iraq or from the Afghan-Pakistan border, Crocker conceded, "I would… pick Al Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border."
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