If there were any doubt about the reach of militants in Pakistan, last week's events should have put them to rest. The ostentatious procession celebrating the return home of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was tragically cut short by twin bombs that killed over 130 and wounded several hundred more on Thursday night. The attackers almost succeeded in killing Bhutto as well. The blast shattered the windows in her vehicle and set a police escort car ablaze. The sophistication of the attack was apparent from the outset, and the bombs may have been accompanied by sniper fire.
But extremist violence in Pakistan is hardly news. The raids against the militant Lal Masjid mosque on July 11 occurred in Islamabad, the capital city. Supporters of al Qaeda exist in the military and intelligence services; indeed, there may prove to be a link between militant infiltrators of these institutions and the attempt on Bhutto's life. The mysterious fact that the streetlights were off and the phone lines dead during the attack further raises the possibility of collaboration with ideologically sympathetic low-level government officials. Still, the stronghold of militant activity in Pakistan is clearly the remote and mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border with Afghanistan, where Pakistan has ceded more and more ground to al Qaeda and its allies over the past year.
The government's successive concessions to militants have not always been viewed as defeats; indeed officials tried to spin them as successes. A year ago, after the signing of one agreement, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States told a network reporter, "The Waziristan accord is not a good thing -- it's a very good thing. It's a new step." Although the accords ceded control over significant portions of the FATA to tribal leaders aligned with al Qaeda and the Taliban, Washington was slow to sound the alarm. Some State Department officials defended the agreements, and President Bush himself offered tepid support during a September 2006 press conference with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf.
One year and three more accords later, all concede that the tribal areas are now the stronghold of al Qaeda's senior leadership -- probably including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. As in Afghanistan under the Taliban, terrorist training camps operate freely, believed by U.S. intelligence to number almost 30. The "9/11 Commission Report" warned that to carry out a catastrophic act of terror like 9/11, an organization requires "time, space, and the ability to perform competent planning and staff work," as well as "a command structure able to make necessary decisions and possessing the authority and contacts to assemble needed people, money, and materials." Al Qaeda now enjoys both of these in Pakistan.
One result is the heightened terrorist threat manifest in the attack on Bhutto, but also in recent plots against the West. Last year U.S. and British authorities announced the disruption of an ambitious scheme to blow up airliners en route from Britain to the United States with liquid explosives. The operatives had trained at al Qaeda's FATA camps and met with high-level operatives Matiur Rehman and Abu Ubaydah al-Masri in Pakistan. Homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff recently told ABC News that the plot, if successful, would have killed thousands. One day last month, authorities in Europe arrested two terrorist cells in Denmark and Germany. Both cells were allegedly planning attacks; both were in touch with high-level extremists in Pakistan and had members who had trained there. While these arrests represent a success for law enforcement, they also signal al Qaeda's regeneration.
Al Qaeda's rebound was several years in the making. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 toppled the Taliban, most of al Qaeda's central leadership relocated to the FATA. Prompted by assassination attempts against Musharraf, Pakistan's military mounted a campaign to flush al Qaeda out of the tribal areas -- but it suffered so many losses that by September 2006 Musharraf felt he had no option but to deal with his would-be killers. His solution was the Waziristan accords, peace agreements that essentially ceded North and South Waziristan to the Taliban and al Qaeda. As part of the accords, Pakistan's military agreed that it would no longer carry out air or ground strikes in the tribal areas, that it would disband its human intelligence network, and that it would abandon outposts and border crossings throughout Waziristan. The accords even allowed non-Pakistani militants to continue to reside in Waziristan if they made an unenforceable promise to "keep the peace."
The failure of these accords was predictable and almost immediate. Shortly after the accords were signed, a U.S. military official told the Associated Press that "American troops on Afghanistan's eastern border have seen a threefold increase" in cross-border attacks from Pakistan. Since then, Pakistan has entered into similar treaties over the tribal areas of Bajaur, Swat, and Mohmand.
This leaves us with the present alarming picture: relative security for al Qaeda's senior leadership, greater instability in Afghanistan, a steady flow of skilled terrorists coming out of training camps, and a systemic risk of catastrophic attack reminiscent of the risk we faced before 9/11. This occurs against the backdrop of Musharraf's political impotence. Despite his electoral victory in October, Islamic extremists have sworn to topple him from power, and his clumsy handling of conflicts with his supreme court has destroyed his already dwindling support among liberal elites. Even the Bhutto assassination attempt has fueled anti-Musharraf propaganda, as rumors quickly spread that he was behind the attack -- intending to use it as a pretext to impose martial law. Shadowy figures like Gen. Hamid Gul and Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, whose ideological sympathies lie with the Taliban and al Qaeda, lurk in the background. All of which conjueres up the "nightmare scenario": a nuclear-armed state openly aligned with our terrorist enemies.
Thus far, American policy toward Pakistan has amounted to unconditional support for Musharraf, coupled with occasional air strikes against high-level al Qaeda targets in the tribal areas. Emblematic of the latter is an October 30, 2006, strike against a madrassa in a Bajaur village that allegedly served as an al Qaeda training camp. While Zawahiri may have been the strike's target, the madrassa was affiliated with another key al Qaeda confederate, Faqir Mohammed, who had contracted a strategic marriage with a woman from the local Mamoond tribe. A U.S. Predator strike destroyed the school, but it hardly slowed down Mohammed, who gave an interview with NBC at the scene of the wreckage and later spoke at the funeral for the victims.
Nor is any satisfactory alternative military strategy on offer. One senior American military intelligence officer said it would take a sustained air campaign to deprive al Qaeda of its safe haven in the FATA. "We're talking about a Serbia-style prolonged campaign," he said. NATO's air campaign against Serbia's military lasted from March 24 through June 11, 1999, and comprised over 38,000 missions involving approximately 1,000 aircraft and a barrage of Tomahawk missiles. Such a campaign in Pakistan's tribal areas, the officer said, would "heavily degrade" but not eliminate al Qaeda. "Their camps won't be actively producing terrorists," he said, "but they'll survive the air campaign." Furthermore, a campaign on that scale might result in the toppling of Musharraf -- who, in the vivid phrase of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, is already "dancing on razor blades."
No analyst I spoke with thought we could do much better than the strategy of covert pinprick strikes that the United States and Pakistan are currently employing, wherein Pakistan frequently takes responsibility for U.S. strikes. This will not deprive al Qaeda of its safe haven, although it may occasionally yield important kills.
What about covert action? American Special Operations forces are already engaging in actions coordinated with the air strikes. The most notable achievement in this regard occurred in southern Afghanistan, where NATO and Afghan forces killed Mullah Dadullah Lang, the Taliban's top military commander, back in May. There are barriers, though, to expanding the Special Operations forces' role. The topography makes it difficult to insert and remove forces without being detected. Within the military, there is a real desire to avoid another Operation Eagle Claw -- the ill-fated attempt to rescue hostages held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran during President Carter's term.
Unfortunately, the potential for things going awry is high if Special Operations missions are increased. Special Operations forces act in small teams and are lightly armed, so could be overwhelmed by larger contingents of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Enemy forces in Pakistan are better armed and trained than the Somali forces in the Black Hawk Down incident, and they have SA-18 surface-to-air missiles capable of downing American helicopters.
There is always the option of a full-scale counterinsurgency operation in the FATA, including the insertion of American ground troops. Some commentators favor this approach. Steve Schippert, the managing editor of Threats-Watch, told me, "At the end of the day, there is no getting around that if al Qaeda is going to be defeated in Pakistan, it will take our boots on the ground." Military affairs analyst Bill Roggio agrees that in an ideal world we would conduct counterinsurgency operations jointly with Pakistan's armed forces, but deems this not feasible in the current political context: We lack both resources and the will to take the casualties it would require. Roggio is almost certainly right -- and, again, the insertion of American ground forces would heighten the risk of Musharraf's being toppled from power.
Pakistan's military, meanwhile, does not appear to be up to the task of confronting the militants. It is unclear what level of casualties caused Musharraf to call off the attempt to control the tribal areas and make a deal with the extremists; the numbers are secret and estimates vary widely. Most observers believe Pakistan has lost about 1,000 men in its fight to control the FATA, but some believe it has lost more soldiers in this fight than the United States has lost in Iraq.