Al Qaeda Finds Its Center of Gravity
By DAVID ROHDE | September 10, 2006
OVER the last year, as Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have dominated headlines, hopes of gaining firmer control of a largely forgotten corner of the war on terrorism — the lawless Pakistan-Afghanistan border region — have quietly evaporated.
On Tuesday, the Pakistani government signed a “truce” with militants who have resisted Pakistani military efforts to gain control of the region, which is roughly the size of Delaware. The agreement, which lets militants remain in the area as long as they promised to halt attacks, immediately set off concern among American analysts.
Al Qaeda’s surviving leadership is suspected of using the border areas as a base of operation to support international terrorist attacks, including possibly the July 2005 London subway bombings. Meanwhile, the Taliban leadership is widely believed to be using another border area to direct spiraling attacks in Afghanistan.
“There’s a link with broader international terrorism,” said Robert Grenier, the former top counterterrorism official for the Central Intelligence Agency. “There’s a link with what is happening in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, such as it is now, really has its center of gravity in the area.”
Last week’s truce agreement covers North Waziristan, an area on the Pakistani side of the border. After the Taliban fell in 2001, senior Qaeda and Taliban leaders are believed to have fled there from Afghanistan and to other remote border areas in Pakistan.
The locations of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri remain unknown. But American officials suspect that they are somewhere along the border.
After two attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003 were linked to the tribal areas, Pakistani officials expanded the military effort to subdue the region. But after suffering heavy casualties in 2004 and early 2005, they began negotiating with local militants. Last year, Pakistan signed a separate agreement with militants in South Waziristan, but the move failed to slow the killing of government supporters.
“If you look at the number of deaths in the region, it’s not clear that they’ve dropped,” said Xenia Dormandy, former director for South Asia for the National Security Council. Signing such truces, she said, “is a potentially dangerous route to take because there is little pressure that you can bring to bear to make sure they can follow through on the agreements.”
Two hundred miles to the south, the Taliban leadership is believed to have established a base of operations in and around the Pakistani city of Quetta, according to American analysts. Afghan officials say the Taliban used the area to plan and carry out sweeping attacks in southern Afghanistan in the spring.
Pakistan has largely turned a blind eye to Taliban activities, American officials say, because it sees the group as a tool to counter growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have longed viewed a friendly Afghanistan as critical to their survival and fears India may be trying to encircle their country.
At the same time, a separate uprising in Baluchistan province has tied up Pakistani soldiers. Ethnic Baluch tribesmen complain that Pakistan’s military government is not sharing enough of the profits from natural gas exploration with the locals. The killing last month of a charismatic tribal elder who was a rebel leader set off riots in several cities.
“Pakistan is essentially trying to put down a civil war in Baluchistan,” said Ms. Dormandy, now an analyst at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “At the same time, it’s trying to monitor its border with India, monitor the border of Afghanistan and bring down the Taliban and Al Qaeda.”
In Afghanistan, NATO forces that took control of security in the south from American forces this summer have been surprised by the size and strength of the Taliban insurgency. Roadside bomb attacks have doubled this year, and suicide bombings have tripled. Yesterday, a suicide bombing in Kabul killed at least 2 American soldiers and 14 Afghan civilians.
All told this year, heavy clashes in eastern and southern Afghanistan have killed more than 100 American and NATO soldiers, roughly twice the number killed in the same period in 2005. Since Aug. 1 alone, 28 NATO soldiers have been killed.
Analysts say the problem in the border region is an explosive mix of conditions: a lack of government authority, a vast amount of weaponry and the rise of Islamic militancy. Until the 1980’s, the area was ruled by local tribes, whose brute self-government kept the population isolated and impoverished but allowed for a degree of stability.
In the 1980’s, the American-backed anti-Soviet jihad unfolded in the region and began to wear away longstanding tribal structures. Huge piles of weapons and cash empowered Islamist organizations to open dozens of training camps, hard-line mosques and conservative religious schools along the border. In the 1990’s, the Taliban emerged there.
Today, said Mr. Grenier, the former C.I.A. official, the only way to increase government authority in the rural areas on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was to develop the impoverished rural areas over time. “But that’s a generational process,” said Mr. Grenier, now a managing director at Kroll Inc., a security firm based in New York.
This summer, local people interviewed in southern Afghanistan said they were unsure that the United States and NATO would remain committed to the long, expensive process of stabilizing the border region. This year, the United States cut its aid to Afghanistan by 30 percent.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban are no doubt betting that time is on their side.