FEATURES & EDITOR’S COMMENT: America needs a better Qaeda narrative

Amid policy disputes, Qaeda grows in Pakistan

Administration lawyers and State Department officials are concerned about any new authorities that would allow military missions to be launched without the approval of the American ambassador in Islamabad. With Qaeda operatives now described in intelligence reports as deeply entrenched in the tribal areas and immersed in the civilian population, there is also a view among some military and C.I.A. officials that the opportunity for decisive American action against the militants may have been lost.

Pakistani military officials, meanwhile, express growing frustration with the American pressure, and point out that Pakistan has lost more than 1,000 members of its security forces in the tribal areas since 2001, nearly double the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan.

Some architects of America’s efforts in Pakistan defend the Bush administration’s record in the tribal areas, and vigorously deny that Washington took its eye off the terrorist threat as it focused on Iraq policy. Some also question whether Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s top two leaders, are really still able to orchestrate large-scale attacks.

“I do wonder if it’s in fact the case that Al Qaeda has really reconstituted itself to a pre-9/11 capability, and in fact I would say I seriously doubt that,” said Mr. Crocker, the American ambassador to Pakistan between 2004 and 2006 and currently the ambassador to Iraq.

“Their top-level leadership is still out there, but they’re not communicating and they’re not moving around. I think they’re symbolic more than operationally effective,” Mr. Crocker said.

But while Mr. Bush vowed early on that Mr. bin Laden would be captured “dead or alive,” the moment in late 2001 when Mr. bin Laden and his followers escaped at Tora Bora was almost certainly the last time the Qaeda leader was in American sights, current and former intelligence officials say. Leading terrorism experts have warned that it is only a matter of time before a major terrorist attack planned in the mountains of Pakistan is carried out on American soil. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Why would the branch of al Qaeda based in Pakistan be wasting its resources plotting another major attack on the US? To my mind it seems more likely that they’re now operating under the principle: No need to attack them over there when we can fight them right here.

These are strategic thinkers and I doubt that they have as strong an interest in the abstract goal of destroying Western civilization as they do in the practical goal of driving the US and its allies out of Afghanistan. 9/11 was the bait intended to draw the enemy into a fight on the home turf. We swallowed the bait.

And at the same time, let’s not lose sight of the fact that even a so-called reconstituted al Qaeda with — as the NYT claims — 2,000 local and foreign fighters, is a relatively minor player in this war.

As Graham Usher makes clear in the article below, the geographically-rooted social force here is an ethnic Pashtun movement that ultimately aspires to turn its homeland into a state. “The closest analogy,” according to Khalid Aziz, a former first secretary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), “is the Maoists in Nepal.”

When Obama and the Democratic chorus use the line, “finish the job” in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, do they have the slightest clue what this means? It’s comic-book-talk — no more sophisticated than Bush’s original “smoke ’em out of their caves” line. Anyone serious about trying to dismantle al Qaeda has to reconcile themselves to the ugly fact that this will require dealing with, rather than attempting to destroy, the Taliban. That effort could have started in September 2001. The fact that it didn’t, resulted from a failure in imagination that has haunted us ever since.

Pakistan amidst the storms

Pakistan’s insurgents are not one group, but at least four, loosely allied. There is the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban. There are the “Kashmiri mujahideen,” native jihadist groups once nurtured by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to fight a proxy war with India in the disputed Kashmir province but which have now cut loose from their handlers. And there is al-Qaeda and its affiliates: between 150 and 500 Arab, Uzbek and other foreign fighters who have found refuge in the FATA and use the remote tribal enclave for planning, training, rearmament and recruitment.

There are differences between the factions. The Pakistan and Afghan Taliban are still overwhelmingly ethnic Pashtun movements with a focus on Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and the jihadists have a more global reach, including targets within Pakistan, such as the bombing on June 2 of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. But all are united in the war against the US and NATO in Afghanistan. And all are committed to extending the Taliban’s territorial reach beyond the FATA to the NWFP as a whole, including Peshawar, the provincial capital. Such Talibanization “gives the Taliban more security, territory, recruits and bargaining power,” says a source. “It allows them to talk peace in Swat while waging war in Waziristan.”

The government’s response to Talibanization has been to temporize. In 2007, before her return, Bhutto spoke of devolving democratic power to the tribes while integrating the FATA into Pakistan proper, in effect doing away with its special “tribal” status. The focus of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, which heads the NWFP Provincial Government, is economic: It has drawn up plans for a crash program of schools, colleges, rehabilitation centers and jobs to wean young tribesmen from an emerging Taliban polity that is well “on the way to primitive state formation with its own tax system, paid bureaucracy and dispute resolution,” says Aziz. For him — and many in the NWFP government — the Taliban represents less an Islamist movement than a “class revolt expressed in a religious idiom. The closest analogy is the Maoists in Nepal,” he says. It can only be addressed by the “transformation and integration” of a derelict tribal system.

Such a project “will take years,” says Aziz. It is also understood that no peace will hold in the NWFP without a resolution of the conflict with the Taliban in the FATA, which is under the remit of the federal government. And the PPP and Awami Nationalist Party have passed that buck to the army: an abdication frankly admitted by the government’s decision on June 25 to entrust the use of force in FATA entirely to Kayani. The army’s strategy for now is to secure localized peace deals that will keep the territorial advantage it obtained in February while playing divide-and-rule with the Taliban’s different tribal leaderships. It is “the policy of the breathing space,” says Afghanistan expert Ahmad Rashid.

In South Waziristan, this means extracting a pledge from the Taliban to end attacks on the army and government-sponsored development projects. In return, the army will release prisoners and “reposition” its units outside the cities. In Swat in the NWFP, the tradeoff is that the Taliban end attacks on government institutions, including girls’ schools, in return for implementation of Islamic law, seen principally as a means to coopt hundreds of jobless seminary students who may otherwise join the militants. “It’s an agreement,” says Aziz, “but not in the Western sense. In the FATA an agreement is an arrangement to coexist. It means shutting your eyes to many things.”

The Taliban have closed their eyes to the army camps that now nestle permanently in the mountains above them. And the army is looking away from a steady flow of guerrillas across the border, or at least is not acting overtly to intercept them. Peace in Pakistan, in other words, may translate into intensified warfare in Afghanistan. [complete article]

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