NYT : Al Qaeda Threatens; U.S. Frets

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Al Qaeda Threatens; U.S. Frets

By MARK MAZZETTI and DAVID E. SANGER | Published: July 22, 2007

WASHINGTON: IN the Bush administration’s first analysis of what went wrong in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, it quickly arrived at a relatively simple conclusion: The Clinton administration was sleepwalking as Al Qaeda strengthened its safe haven in Afghanistan.

After the attacks on American embassies in Africa and the U.S.S. Cole, the Clinton White House determined that invading a sovereign state to rid it of Osama bin Laden was fraught with too many difficulties. So it relied on pinprick attacks, hoping that covert actions and a cruise-missile attack on a training camp might do the trick. Only after nearly 3,000 Americans had died, did the United States invade.

Now, as a National Intelligence Estimate released last week makes clear, the Bush White House finds itself in a similar predicament. Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the wild west tribal areas of Pakistan. It is stronger than at any time in years, and it is actively plotting new attacks.

There is a chance, however, that events in Pakistan in recent weeks have at last presented the opportunity for a serious campaign against Islamic radicals in Pakistan, if it’s not already too late. The breakdown of a cease-fire between elders in the tribal lands of Pakistan and the government of President Pervez Musharraf, combined with the determination that General Musharraf showed earlier this month when he ordered an assault on the Red Mosque complex in Islamabad, may have finally given President Bush something his predecessor never had: a partner who may at long last be persuaded to go after an entrenched terrorist haven.

Pakistan experts argue that if General Musharraf were to begin an aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, it wouldn’t be to please Washington. Moreover, coming elections in Pakistan could be the impetus for action as General Musharraf tries to look forceful before his countrymen go to the polls.

“There is recognition on Musharraf’s part that he has an opportunity now that may not exist in a future political configuration because his power may wane,” said Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations, who previously worked on Pakistan issues at the State Department.

A challenge to that power rose again on Friday when the country’s Supreme Court restored the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, to his post after being suspended by General Musharraf. Mr. Chaudhry, now a hero to an anti-Musharraf movement, could end up ruling on whether the leader can remain the head of the army as he seeks re-election as president.

Washington is captivated by General Musharraf because he is a secular moderate, which is not to be confused with a civil libertarian. John D. Negroponte, the deputy secretary of state who until late last year tracked the gathering Qaeda threat as the director of national intelligence, ended a trip to Pakistan a month ago convinced that General Musharraf’s government had, at long last, gotten the message about the tribal areas in the northwest officially known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

“I found that one of the really decisive factors driving the Pakistani government’s response to the situation is the fact that violence has spread from the FATA to what they called the settled territories,” he said. In the past week alone, he noted, roughly 100 Pakistani soldiers have been killed, largely in bombing attacks, and the army has vowed to stop what General Musharraf calls the “Talibanization” of the country.

While Washington is officially optimistic, it has received promises from General Musharraf before. It was more than two years between the time that he sidelined Abdul Qadeer Khan, the head of the Khan Nuclear Laboratories, and the time he actually put him under house arrest for running the world’s largest nuclear technology smuggling network. In the interim, a lot of damage was done.

On the Afghan border, General Musharraf has promised to pursue and break up the Taliban, but in case after case the Taliban leaders have moved unimpeded between the tribal areas and Afghan villages, while Pakistani troops looked the other way. No one believes that Pakistan’s intelligence service has been purged of Taliban sympathizers.

So when Americans hear General Musharraf’s promises, they are once burned, and twice skeptical. “I’ve heard all this before,” one recently departed senior C.I.A. official with extensive experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan said last week about the administration’s official optimism.

The Pakistani Army, he and others said, is designed, trained and equipped to fight India in Kashmir and deter New Dehli with nuclear weapons. That requires a dramatically different kind of strategy from what is needed in the tribal areas, whose leaders do not consider themselves part of Pakistan.

A senior administration official said on Wednesday that even if General Musharraf had the right intentions, “it’s not clear he’s got the capability,” which is why the United States is rushing to supply him with more money and weapons. And even as they speak publicly about throwing their support behind General Musharraf’s efforts against radicals, administration officials in private find themselves re-enacting those Clinton-era debates about how to dismantle a terrorist haven inside a sovereign country.

The western mountains of Pakistan have been the hatching grounds for some of Al Qaeda’s deadliest plots. Besides the London transportation attacks in July 2005, the thwarted plot to blow up multiple trans-Atlantic commercial jets last August is thought by British and American officials to have been planned by Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas.

But the options facing President Bush are at least as unpalatable as those that confronted President Clinton.

One, of course, would be to initiate aggressive campaigns of deniable covert action in Pakistan to capture or kill Qaeda operatives, and pray that American Special Forces or C.I.A. officers don’t get caught. Another would be to use airstrikes against known terrorist compounds in the tribal areas. A third would involve carrying out a large-scale ground offensive across the border from Afghanistan — sending troops to rumble through villages in the hunt for the world’s most wanted men.

That last option seems, for all intents and purposes, off the table. Sending thousands of heavily armed American soldiers on a cave-to-cave search of North Waziristan, is, in the view of most experts, the least likely means of effectively dismantling Al Qaeda’s Pakistan base of operations. Besides, a decision to allow an American invasion across Pakistan’s western border could very well doom a government the Bush administration considers its best bet.

As for unilateral airstrikes, military and intelligence officials said that information on the whereabouts of top terrorists is rarely precise enough to justify bombings that could result in significant civilian casualties, and a failed airstrike could shut the door to future American operations in the region.

“You could do a hit-and-run really quick,” said one Bush administration official. “But that better be one damn good strike, because there ain’t going to be another.”

The C.I.A. has had occasional success in recent years killing top Qaeda planners with missiles fired from remote-controlled Predator aircraft — a covert action effort that the United States officially denies.

But intelligence officials acknowledge that after each attack, the terror group has merely tapped a deep bench and elevated another operative to a more lofty position.

So the administration that raised military pre-emption to the level of national doctrine after 9/11 is now confronting a more nuanced reality: officials acknowledge they would be hard pressed to mount an all-out attack against the Qaeda redoubt unless the terrorists struck first.

Yet, when asked how the United States would respond if Al Qaeda were to plot a successful attack on the United States from the tribal areas, the answer from one intelligence officials was direct: “We’d go in and flatten it.”