While Pakistan Burns

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
The Weekly Standard
October 29, 2007

Al Qaeda Regroups in the tribal areas, the government falters. What is to be done?

If there were any doubt about the reach of militants in Pakistan, last week’s events should have put them to rest. The ostentatious procession celebrating the return home of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was tragically cut short by twin bombs that killed over 130 and wounded several hundred more on Thursday night. The attackers almost succeeded in killing Bhutto as well. The blast shattered the windows in her vehicle and set a police escort car ablaze. The sophistication of the attack was apparent from the outset, and the bombs may have been accompanied by sniper fire.

But extremist violence in Pakistan is hardly news. The raids against the militant Lal Masjid mosque on July 11 occurred in Islamabad, the capital city. Supporters of al Qaeda exist in the military and intelligence services; indeed, there may prove to be a link between militant infiltrators of these institutions and the attempt on Bhutto’s life. The mysterious fact that the streetlights were off and the phone lines dead during the attack further raises the possibility of collaboration with ideologically sympathetic low-level government officials. Still, the stronghold of militant activity in Pakistan is clearly the remote and mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border with Afghanistan, where Pakistan has ceded more and more ground to al Qaeda and its allies over the past year.

The government’s successive concessions to militants have not always been viewed as defeats; indeed officials tried to spin them as successes. A year ago, after the signing of one agreement, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States told a network reporter, “The Waziristan accord is not a good thing–it’s a very good thing. It’s a new step.” Although the accords ceded control over significant portions of the FATA to tribal leaders aligned with al Qaeda and the Taliban, Washington was slow to sound the alarm. Some State Department officials defended the agreements, and President Bush himself offered tepid support during a September 2006 press conference with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf.

One year and three more accords later, all concede that the tribal areas are now the stronghold of al Qaeda’s senior leadership–probably including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. As in Afghanistan under the Taliban, terrorist training camps operate freely, believed by U.S. intelligence to number almost 30. The 9/11 Commission Report warned that to carry out a catastrophic act of terror like 9/11, an organization requires “time, space, and the ability to perform competent planning and staff work,” as well as “a command structure able to make necessary decisions and possessing the authority and contacts to assemble needed people, money, and materials.” Al Qaeda now enjoys both of these in Pakistan.

One result is the heightened terrorist threat manifest in the attack on Bhutto, but also in recent plots against the West. Last year U.S. and British authorities announced the disruption of an ambitious scheme to blow up airliners en route from Britain to the United States with liquid explosives. The operatives had trained at al Qaeda’s FATA camps and met with high-level operatives Matiur Rehman and Abu Ubaydah al-Masri in Pakistan. Homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff recently told ABC News that the plot, if successful, would have killed thousands. One day last month, authorities in Europe arrested two terrorist cells in Denmark and Germany. Both cells were allegedly planning attacks; both were in touch with high-level extremists in Pakistan and had members who had trained there. While these arrests represent a success for law enforcement, they also signal al Qaeda’s regeneration.

Al Qaeda’s rebound was several years in the making. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 toppled the Taliban, most of al Qaeda’s central leadership relocated to the FATA. Prompted by assassination attempts against Musharraf, Pakistan’s military mounted a campaign to flush al Qaeda out of the tribal areas–but it suffered so many losses that by September 2006 Musharraf felt he had no option but to deal with his would-be killers. His solution was the Waziristan accords, peace agreements that essentially ceded North and South Waziristan to the Taliban and al Qaeda. As part of the accords, Pakistan’s military agreed that it would no longer carry out air or ground strikes in the tribal areas, that it would disband its human intelligence network, and that it would abandon outposts and border crossings throughout Waziristan. The accords even allowed non-Pakistani militants to continue to reside in Waziristan if they made an unenforceable promise to “keep the peace.”

The failure of these accords was predictable and almost immediate. Shortly after the accords were signed, a U.S. military official told the Associated Press that “American troops on Afghanistan’s eastern border have seen a threefold increase” in cross-border attacks from Pakistan. Since then, Pakistan has entered into similar treaties over the tribal areas of Bajaur, Swat, and Mohmand.

This leaves us with the present alarming picture: relative security for al Qaeda’s senior leadership, greater instability in Afghanistan, a steady flow of skilled terrorists coming out of training camps, and a systemic risk of catastrophic attack reminiscent of the risk we faced before 9/11. This occurs against the backdrop of Musharraf’s political impotence. Despite his electoral victory in October, Islamic extremists have sworn to topple him from power, and his clumsy handling of conflicts with his supreme court has destroyed his already dwindling support among liberal elites. Even the Bhutto assassination attempt has fueled anti-Musharraf propaganda, as rumors quickly spread that he was behind the attack–intending to use it as a pretext to impose martial law. Shadowy figures like Gen. Hamid Gul and Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, whose ideological sympathies lie with the Taliban and al Qaeda, lurk in the background. All of which conjueres up the “nightmare scenario”: a nuclear-armed state openly aligned with our terrorist enemies.

Thus far, American policy toward Pakistan has amounted to unconditional support for Musharraf, coupled with occasional air strikes against high-level al Qaeda targets in the tribal areas. Emblematic of the latter is an October 30, 2006, strike against a madrassa in a Bajaur village that allegedly served as an al Qaeda training camp. While Zawahiri may have been the strike’s target, the madrassa was affiliated with another key al Qaeda confederate, Faqir Mohammed, who had contracted a strategic marriage with a woman from the local Mamoond tribe. A U.S. Predator strike destroyed the school, but it hardly slowed down Mohammed, who gave an interview with NBC at the scene of the wreckage and later spoke at the funeral for the victims.

Nor is any satisfactory alternative military strategy on offer. One senior American military intelligence officer said it would take a sustained air campaign to deprive al Qaeda of its safe haven in the FATA. “We’re talking about a Serbia-style prolonged campaign,” he said. NATO’s air campaign against Serbia’s military lasted from March 24 through June 11, 1999, and comprised over 38,000 missions involving approximately 1,000 aircraft and a barrage of Tomahawk missiles. Such a campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the officer said, would “heavily degrade” but not eliminate al Qaeda. “Their camps won’t be actively producing terrorists,” he said, “but they’ll survive the air campaign.” Furthermore, a campaign on that scale might result in the toppling of Musharraf–who, in the vivid phrase of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, is already “dancing on razor blades.”

No analyst I spoke with thought we could do much better than the strategy of covert pinprick strikes that the United States and Pakistan are currently employing, wherein Pakistan frequently takes responsibility for U.S. strikes. This will not deprive al Qaeda of its safe haven, although it may occasionally yield important kills.

What about covert action? American Special Operations forces are already engaging in actions coordinated with the air strikes. The most notable achievement in this regard occurred in southern Afghanistan, where NATO and Afghan forces killed Mullah Dadullah Lang, the Taliban’s top military commander, back in May. There are barriers, though, to expanding the Special Operations forces’ role. The topography makes it difficult to insert and remove forces without being detected. Within the military, there is a real desire to avoid another Operation Eagle Claw–the ill-fated attempt to rescue hostages held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran during President Carter’s term.

Unfortunately, the potential for things going awry is high if Special Operations missions are increased. Special Operations forces act in small teams and are lightly armed, so could be overwhelmed by larger contingents of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Enemy forces in Pakistan are better armed and trained than the Somali forces in the Black Hawk Down incident, and they have SA-18 surface-to-air missiles capable of downing American helicopters.

There is always the option of a full-scale counterinsurgency operation in the FATA, including the insertion of American ground troops. Some commentators favor this approach. Steve Schippert, the managing editor of Threats-Watch, told me, “At the end of the day, there is no getting around that if al Qaeda is going to be defeated in Pakistan, it will take our boots on the ground.” Military affairs analyst Bill Roggio agrees that in an ideal world we would conduct counterinsurgency operations jointly with Pakistan’s armed forces, but deems this not feasible in the current political context: We lack both resources and the will to take the casualties it would require. Roggio is almost certainly right–and, again, the insertion of American ground forces would heighten the risk of Musharraf’s being toppled from power.

Pakistan’s military, meanwhile, does not appear to be up to the task of confronting the militants. It is unclear what level of casualties caused Musharraf to call off the attempt to control the tribal areas and make a deal with the extremists; the numbers are secret and estimates vary widely. Most observers believe Pakistan has lost about 1,000 men in its fight to control the FATA, but some believe it has lost more soldiers in this fight than the United States has lost in Iraq. Then, too, Pakistani soldiers have shown reluctance to fight their “Muslim brothers.” This unwillingness was bolstered by a fatwa issued in 2004 by clerics Mohammed Abdul Aziz and Abdur Rashid Ghazi stating that Pakistani soldiers killed in South Waziristan deserved neither a Muslim funeral nor burial in a Muslim cemetery.

Where does the dearth of military options leave us? Pakistan’s government could still play an important role despite its military’s weakness. Seth Jones, of the RAND Corporation, argues that the centerpiece of U.S. strategy should be diplomatic pressure on Islamabad, once the political situation in Pakistan is calmer. “We need a clear diplomatic message,” Jones said. “Al Qaeda is regenerated, and a number of recent terror plots are linked back to its tribal areas. Pakistan faces a choice not too different from what it faced on 9/11.”

U.S. assistance, Jones says, should be tied directly to the arrest or killing of key al Qaeda leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahiri. “The threat then would be that if we can’t get clear progress in a measurable timeframe, this would leave the United States in the unfortunate position of having to significantly decrease its assistance to Pakistan and move in the direction of India,” he says. Jones thinks this pressure should be aimed at getting Pakistan’s military and intelligence services to undertake a “clear and hold strategy” against al Qaeda safe havens–not as a military offensive, but a police and intelligence operation.

Others favor an even more aggressive Pakistani role, beginning with a declaration that the treaties concerning the tribal areas are dead. There is ample justification for renouncing the accords, which the Taliban violated from the outset by killing Pakistani troops, sending its fighters into Afghanistan to fight coalition forces, and setting up separate governmental entities.

If Pakistan nullified the FATA agreements, there are aggressive measures it could take without risking its troops in the tribal areas. Musharraf could treat the FATA as a hostile province and impede militants’ movements by erecting fences along the perimeter (as Pakistan has done on parts of its border with India) and establishing an internal passport system. Anybody who traveled out of the FATA could be treated as though he were entering from an enemy nation, and would be subject to search and questioning. Impeding the movement of FATA-based extremists would not only hinder their efforts, but also help coalition forces in Afghanistan to track who had visited the high-risk FATA. As one senior American military intelligence officer put it, “FATA should become Taiwan to Pakistan’s China.”

The major problem with this approach is that it hinges on Musharraf. He was presented with a sterling opportunity to cancel the accords earlier this summer, after Pakistani forces raided the Lal Masjid. That mosque had been a center for the recruitment of fighters and suicide bombers to combat coalition forces in Afghanistan. Militants in the tribal areas responded to the raid with rage and vows of revenge. A number of attacks on Pakistani forces were launched from the FATA thereafter, in clear violation of the accords. Musharraf talked tough talk, but he never declared the accords dead–and ultimately reaffirmed his commitment to withdraw all Pakistani troops from tribal areas by year’s end.

Musharraf’s reluctance to abandon the accord framework does not mean he will never do so. The United States has not applied sustained pressure on this issue, and it should. It should develop a basket of incentives to persuade Musharraf to junk the agreements. Still, even as it hopes for the best from Pakistan, Washington should be prepared for continuing inaction.

American successes in Iraq over the past year may hold some lessons for tackling the problem in Pakistan. A critical factor in the turnaround during the tenure of Gen. David Petraeus as the top U.S. commander in Iraq has been our improved ability to align with tribal elements that oppose the brutality of al Qaeda. The Anbar Salvation Front–a collection of Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi nationalists, ex-Baathists, and others united in the goal of driving al Qaeda from their country–has been a vital ally in destroying the safe haven al Qaeda had enjoyed in Iraq’s Anbar province. We won’t quickly find an ally in Pakistan as capable as the late Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, who led the Anbar Salvation Front, but the broader lesson is the need to understand local actors and rely on more than our sheer military might.

One expert on irregular warfare who frequently consults with the federal government argues that the Anbar Salvation Front model should be considered for Pakistan. Though her ideas are “the starting point for a conversation” rather than a well-developed proposal, she notes surface similarities between Iraq and Pakistan. “You have multiple tribes,” she said, “some of which have been in conflict and some of which have been aligned. The way people make their living is also similar. There are settled tribes that live by agriculture, and tribes that have lived by smuggling, banditry, and tribal warfare.” The Pakistani tribes apparently differ in their approach to al Qaeda, too, the northern tribes being more welcoming than the southern tribes.

“There are people within the Pakistani tribes who don’t buy into the Taliban’s concept of Islam,” this analyst said. “They don’t believe this is the correct way to practice the religion. To me this suggests that there are fissures, both ideological and tribal, that can be exploited.” But exploiting them will take a good deal of time, give our lack of cultural and institutional understanding. “Before you start getting involved in these situations,” a senior American military intelligence officer told me, “you need to know who is whose enemy, which groups are backing the Taliban and al Qaeda. At the clan and tribal level, we don’t have a good idea of this.” Such knowledge could perhaps be gleaned from our Afghan allies, since neither Pashtun nor Baluch society recognizes the artificial border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While working to develop local allies, the United States can also implement tactics other than pinprick bombing. This is especially important at a micro-level. Al Qaeda draws its strength from specific individuals and clans inside Pakistan, including powerful allies in the military and intelligence service, tribal sheiks, and figures in the underground economy. We need to better understand the patronage networks that al Qaeda and the Taliban benefit from, and undermine them.

On the one hand, the United States can use a variety of sticks. It can support tribal groups that oppose al Qaeda and the Taliban against rivals who favor them. It can work with Pakistani and other intelligence services to shut down the businesses of individuals involved in the financial apparatus that backs our enemies–such as organized crime kingpin Dawood Ibrahim–obtaining blackmail information on them and arresting their operatives.

David E. Kaplan, who investigated the nexus between organized crime and terrorism for U.S. News & World Report, believes there is no easy way to stop the flow of money to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Although it is known that al Qaeda benefits from the drug trade, controlling smuggling routes from Afghanistan to Pakistan and taxing each shipment, a solution to regional drug trafficking remains elusive. “If you go after opium growers,” he said, “you’ll undercut [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai’s government because a lot of these guys back him.” Kaplan says attempts are being made now to go after factions involved in the narcotics trade that back al Qaeda and the Taliban rather than those that back Karzai, “but the lines aren’t always clear. The narcotics industry is diffuse, with lots of different players.”

Kaplan does think that attempting to shut down sources of al Qaeda and Taliban funding within Pakistan’s underground economy holds promise, given the American authorities’ experience with combating multinational criminal organizations. “Look at how we broke the U.S. mafia in the past twenty years,” he said. “But the bad news is that these guys are in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The DEA didn’t even have an office in Afghanistan until after 9/11, so they have a lot of catching up to do.”

The senior U.S. military intelligence officer quoted above believes we should be ready to undermine support for the Taliban and al Qaeda within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and military. “A large number of ISI agents who are responsible for helping the Taliban and al Qaeda should be thrown in jail or killed,” he said. “What I think we should do in Pakistan is a parallel version of what Iran has run against us in Iraq: giving money, empowering actors. Some of this will involve working with some shady characters, but the alternative–sending U.S. forces into Pakistan for a sustained bombing campaign–is worse.”

Seth Jones of RAND is cautious about this approach because of the heavy support for the Taliban within the ISI. He notes that militants are supported not just by rogue elements but seemingly at the top levels as well. Certainly top leaders of ISI show little interest in arresting their own.

Not only sticks, of course, but also carrots could be used to entice actors in Pakistan to turn against al Qaeda. For example, the United States could enhance the prestige of commanders and units within Pakistan’s military who willingly cooperated in efforts to root out extremism in the tribal areas. America could make sure they had the best equipment by earmarking aid for specific regiments or commanders. Similarly, U.S. military training could focus on units and commanders who had demonstrated their willingness to undertake military or policing efforts against extremist groups.

Whatever road we take in Pakistan will involve a substantial time commitment, and progress is likely to be slow. American policymakers and analysts still have a state-centric orientation, and have poorly incorporated non-traditional actors into their strategic thinking. The long process of improving our understanding of the Pakistani political scene at a granular level is essential to success.

Every option for moving forward has its associated challenges and pitfalls. But, contrary to some pessimistic views, we do have options. We are not doomed to remain on our present course–supporting Musharraf no matter what he does and bombing targets of opportunity, with no plan for destroying al Qaeda’s new safe haven. That course is plainly ineffective. Worse, it may be preparing the way for another catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States–an attack that would inevitably lead to major military action. Rather than continue to drift toward a wholesale air campaign or ground invasion that threatens to bring still greater instability and danger, we would do far better to act now, using every means at hand to craft an alternative strategy.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam. He is grateful for the assistance of Joshua Goodman in the preparation of this article.

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