Thursday, July 19, 2007

Al Qaeda's Resurgence in Pakistan

Cross-posted at The Agonist

The newly released NIE has made clear, among other things, that our strategy towards dealing with the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Pakistan has failed.

The intelligence report, the most formal assessment since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks about the terrorist threat facing the United States, concludes that the United States is losing ground on a number of fronts in the fight against Al Qaeda, and describes the terrorist organization as having significantly strengthened over the past two years.

In identifying the main reasons for Al Qaeda’s resurgence, intelligence officials and White House aides pointed the finger squarely at a hands-off approach toward the tribal areas by Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who last year brokered a cease-fire with tribal leaders in an attempt to drain support for Islamic extremism in the region.

The extremism was prompted by conflict between the government of Pakistan and Pashtun militants in North and South Waziristan who are sympathetic to (or are members of) the Taliban and al Qaeda. Two years of fighting resulted in heavy casualties for both sides and an upsurge of support for the extremists, but while the cease-fire put an end to the fighting it did not put an end to the militants support of the Taliban, or their frequent incursions into Afghanistan to attack coalition forces and the Afghan government. And this leads us to where we are now, with the al Qaeda leadership largely shielded in these Pashtun-dominated provinces and Musharref forced to play a delicate balancing game with Islamic extremists determined to unseat him. The question that arises amidst the report is, now what? The editors of the Washington Post attempt to answer this question:

The Bush administration has been ducking this critical problem for too long, despite the clear lesson of Afghanistan. The Sept. 11 commission concluded that tolerance of al-Qaeda's sanctuary [in Waziristan] was of "direct and indirect value . . . to al-Qaeda in preparing the 9/11 attack." The commission said the U.S. government must disrupt such bases in the future "using all elements of national power." Senior administration officials have publicly acknowledged since early this year that an al-Qaeda sanctuary exists in Pakistan. But they have rigidly stuck to a strategy of depending on Pakistan's autocratic president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to take that disruptive action -- even while Mr. Musharraf has pursued a contrary policy of appeasing the Pakistani tribesmen who are harboring the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

If Pakistani forces cannot -- or will not -- eliminate the sanctuary, President Bush must order targeted strikes or covert actions by American forces, as he has done several times in recent years. Such actions run the risk of further destabilizing Pakistan. Yet those risks must be weighed against the consequences of another large-scale attack on U.S. soil. "Direct intervention against the sanctuary in Afghanistan apparently must have seemed . . . disproportionate to the threat," the Sept. 11 commission noted. The United States must not repeat that tragic misjudgment.

The editors all too blithely dismiss the concern over destabilization. The extremists most hated enemy is Musharraf and his military regime, but they are more than happy to assist the Taliban and al Qaeda in launching attacks in Afghanistan that are aimed at our reconstruction effort there. Attacks on these militants in what they consider their homeland would only encourage them assist al Qaeda and the Taliban in their war in Afghanistan, and give them reason to support direct attacks against us here at home by al Qaeda.

The editors also seriously overestimate the effectiveness bombings or covert actions would have on disrupting al Qaeda and the Taliban. Waziristan is filled to the brim with people who are sympathetic to both organizations, and both operate largely with impunity there. The editors make no recommendations as to what our military forces are supposed to strike (supply lines, compounds, mosques?) or how that will disrupt attacks on the coalition and the government in Afghanistan. In all liklihood, a disruption campaign carried out through limited strikes wouldn't even effectively disrupt the Taliban and al Qaeda, and it would have the effect of provoking Pashtun militants against us. The only other military option is a full-scale incursion of our own, but what permanent success would that achieve? No one in their right mind-not even the editors of the Washington Post-are advocating that we invade and occupy these provinces, because that would be sheer insanity.

So what are our options? Daniel Markey, writing in this month's Foreign Affairs, argues that we have only one: to patiently guide Pakistan towards further democratization and resist the urge to threaten Musharraf economically or militarily if he refuses to act rashly in dealing with the Islamic militants:

...success in Pakistan's long-term struggle against extremism will eventually demand a thoroughgoing democratic transition in Islamabad, even if that transition is not realistic at the moment. The Bush administration has failed to broaden its partnership with Pakistan much beyond army headquarters; it views the civilian dimension of Pakistani politics as a distraction rather than an integral part of the counterterrorism effort. Most Pakistanis believe that Washington is all too happy to work with a pliant army puppet.

Islamabad needs greater popular legitimacy in order to muster grass-roots support for the counterterrorism agenda. The United States should work to empower Pakistan's moderate civilians even as it builds trust with Pakistan's security forces. These goals are not contradictory: Washington can win the confidence of Pakistan's military establishment without accepting its exclusive political authority, and it can help empower civilian leadership without jeopardizing the army's core interests.

To Markey, there isn't a military solution to ours and Pakistan's troubles in Waziristan. Not one that we can carry out ourselves, and not one that we can force upon Musharref and his generals. Pakistan is at best a questionable ally in the "war on terror", but pushing Musharraf to attack the extremists only threatens his power in favor of those same extremists, who would like nothing better than to rule the country-sans democracy-themselves.

Of course, this a very long-term solution. Democracy in Pakistan will not spring forth overnight in promised elections. The military will not cede power so easily, the Pakistani intelligence services will not sever their connections to the Taliban and al Qaeda so immediately, and the extremists will not be co-opted by participation in the governance of Pakistan so quickly.

This brings us to an unfortunate conclusion on how the "war on terror" has been managed thus far, and a difficult lesson for the future. The conclusion is that yes, our strategy in containing al Qaeda is an almost complete failure. The Bush administration's decision to prosecute a war of choice against Iraq stripped the Afghanistan reconstruction effort of vital resources and personnel, and the leadership of al Qaeda has fled to a region we have no authority in and little ability to infiltrate. The lesson is even more grim: we must live with these consequences, as there's nothing we can do to change them substantially at this time. Our options are limited. We can push for democracy in Pakistan, redeploy the majority of our forces out of Iraq, and deploy some of them back into Afghanistan in numbers that can help put an end to the easy crossing of Taliban and al Qaeda forces into the country from Pakistan. And that's it. For now that's the best we can do, and we have to be willing to live with that and make smart and patient decisions that may someday bring us to some kind of ultimate "victory" against al Qaeda.


adam said...

But according we have them on the run!

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...

This is the most detailed discussion I've run into on this issue. Thanks for posting.

I particularly appreciate the assertions you made, about the relative merits of direct military action and continued support of the existing government in Pakistan.