Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Much has been made of this week’s New York Times article accusing the Bush administration of allowing al Qaeda to rebuild in Pakistan’s tribal areas after it was chased out of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, not least because the White House took its eye off the ball as it turned its attention to Iraq.
“The United States faces a threat from al Qaeda today that is comparable to what it faced on Sept. 11, 2001,” the newspaper quotes Seth Jones, a Pentagon consultant and a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, as saying. ”The base of operations has moved only a short distance, roughly the difference from New York to Philadelphia.”
Unsurprisingly, the article has been seized upon by the Obama campaign as evidence of the wisdom of the policies of Senator Barack Obama, who has argued that the real threat to the United States lay in Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than Iraq, and stirred controversy by saying that, “if we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot”.
But what was surprising to me reading the article was how cautious the Bush administration was in its handling of Pakistan, in contrast to its pre-invasion approach to Iraq. The hunt for al Qaeda in Pakistan, the newspaper says, ”was often undermined by bitter disagreements within the Bush administration and within the C.I.A., including about whether American commandos should launch ground raids inside the tribal areas”. Rather than send in ground troops, the Counterterrorist Center at C.I.A. headquarters preferred to carry out raids remotely, usiing missile strikes by Predator drones.
Despite the reservations of its principal ally, the United States, Pakistan’s new civilian leaders have gone ahead and sued for peace with militants in the Swat valley this week, and by all indications are about to cut another deal, and this with the head of the Taliban in the country.
While the politicians have repeatedly emphasised their independence of action with regard to militants and vowed to pursue a different course from President Pervez Musharraf, can they really see these deals through without the Americans on board?
The U.S. State Department has just released its 2007 report on terrorism worldwide and it doesn’t look like it is winning the war against al Qaeda seven years after the Sept 11 attacks. The group not only remains the biggest threat to the United States and its allies, but using the tribal areas of Pakistan it has rebuilt some of its pre-Sept 11 capabilities. And its top leadership, especially Ayman al-Zawahri, has regained some of its control over the group’s operations worldwide, says the report.
It makes for sobering reading and some of the figures are worth recounting.
- The number of what the report identified as terrorist attacks worldwide fell slightly in 2007, but the number of people killed in the attacks rose to 22,685, from 20,872 in the previous year which suggests that people around the globe were getting increasingly efficient killing other people, as Russ Travers of the National Counterterrorism Center put it.
One factor contributing to the increased lethality of attacks: increased use of backpacks by suicide bombers that are easier to sneak into crowded areas.
India, Pakistan and even tiny Sri Lanka have all ignored U.S. concerns, and have hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the past two days. It is a fleeting visit with less than five hours scheduled in Delhi, but it seems like a carefully calibrated piece of diplomacy tiptoeing around the elephant in the room.
For, as relations go, India and Pakistan have become bound up with the United States in ways that would have been unthinkable not very long ago. Islamabad is a frontline ally in Washington’s war on al Qaeda and the Taliban, India a growing strategic partner with whom it is pushing a far-reaching civilian nuclear deal that gives it de facto recognition as a nuclear state.
So what’s this dance with Iran, accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism and seeking to develop nuclear weapons ? Some of it is down to economics : Iran holds the key to India’s energy insecurity, as a piece in the Asia Times argues.
Update – Since filing this blog, Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud has said he is pulling out of the peace deal with the government after it refused to withdraw the army from tribal lands on the Afghan border. So were the sceptics right all along? And what does this mean for the government’s new strategy?
On the same subject, here is an interesting piece in the Christian Science Monitor comparing Pakistan’s policy to that of the United States in Iraq. “Americans can hardly complain that Pakistan is on the verge of a deal with jihadists,” it says. “The US has already done a similar deal with Iraqi Sunni terrorists. In both cases, a prime goal is simply to isolate Al Qaeda.”
The United States, beginning with President George W. Bush himself, has this past two weeks trained its crosshairs on Pakistan, warning that another Sept. 11, if it were to happen, would most likely not be plotted out of Iraq, Afghanistan or even Iran, but Pakistan.
Like the steady drumbeat that has often preceded major moves by the administration, the threat from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, considered the home of the top ranks of al Qaeda, has been articulated from the White House, at Congressional hearings and abroad.