WaPo : Early Warning: Standing Up to Pakistan?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Early Warning: Standing Up to Pakistan?

William Arkin | July 16, 2007

In nearly six years since 9/11, al-Qaeda has rebuilt its infrastructure in a mountainous and remote part of northwest Pakistan and gathered a larger set of affiliates around the world. Those are two of the unclassified "key judgments" of a new National Intelligence Estimate on Terrorism released yesterday.

Normally I'd be quite cynical about such a government pronouncement, seeing it as a giant subject-changer or as an attempt to mobilize public opinion and maintain fear. But in this case, by saying that Pakistan's approach to al Qaeda is "not working," the United States seems poised to stand up to President Pervez Musharraf for the first time since 9/11. It could also be on the verge of a sea change -- shifting its counterterrorism attention from Iraq to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where it sees the greater threat to America.

The United States intelligence community and administration officials, minced no words yesterday calling for a change in approach. They located Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and criticized the Musharraf regime for its handling of terrorism in northwest Pakistan.

In identifying the main reasons for al-Qaeda's resurgence, intelligence officials and White House aides pointed the finger at a hands-off approach Musharraf adopted years ago toward Pakistan's tribal areas. Last year, he further brokered a cease-fire with tribal leaders in an effort to deny Islamic extremists a foothold in the region. Pakistani armed forces largely withdrew to allow tribal leaders an opportunity to take matters into their own hands; the hope was that al-Qaeda would be pushed out and that greater controls would be exerted over movement across the Afghanistan border.

Instead, as Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher said yesterday, al Qaeda has prospered during the near yearlong cease-fire. "They were able to operate, meet, plan, recruit, and obtain financing in more comfort in the tribal areas than previously," he said. Homeland Security Adviser Frances Fragos Townsend said that the strategy "hasn't worked for Pakistan" and "hasn't worked for the United States."

For years, U.S. officials have been making excuses for Musharraf: that he quietly allowed U.S. forces to operate on Pakistani soil after 9/11, that he defied his own extremists and closet Taliban supporters in the army and intelligence ranks, that he survived numerous assassination attempts in his continuing cooperation, that Pakistan was a good friend and ally and so we needed to understand the difficult domestic circumstances he faced.

The excuses sound quite similar to those offered about Saudi Arabia in the 1990's and after 9/11. Through terrorist attacks on U.S. forces and contractors in 1995 and 1996, the U.S. government made excuses for the kingdom's non-cooperation. Those U.S. forces were there and living under jail-like existence because of Saudi domestic "requirements," and whatever their government did, Washington made excuses for it.

After the 2005 terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials say that country finally got the message that its approach wasn't working. Saudi terrorism, once segregated to small circles and mostly directed externally, had finally come home. It remains to be seen whether the Saudi change in dealing with its own domestic discontents will be enough to save the kingdom.

From the U.S. perspective, this change was profound: previous U.S. policy held that stability and the survival of the ruling monarchy were the most important objectives in the preservation of the oil status quo. We might actually be witnessing the emergence of a U.S. foreign policy that holds U.S. physical security and genuine counterterrorism efforts as more important than oil.

In the case of Pakistan, U.S. policy now follows a similar path: Military-ruled Pakistan, in addition to housing Terror, Inc. for decades, has nuclear weapons, and U.S. policy for more than a decade has been gloves off because of fear of some kind of descent into nuclear disaster or war. The United States has gone to great lengths to protect Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup.

Now the U.S. position seems to be changing: weapons of mass destruction are important, but not so important that we let global terrorism flourish while we stay stuck in the past. A more aggressive U.S. strategy in Pakistan, one that we should have pursued months or years ago, may indeed threaten Musharraf's rule. But it's not without risks. And I doubt I doubt most in the Washington fray will get the significance of this shift.