Bush's (Latest) Pakistan Problem
The new U.S. intelligence assessment on the terrorist threat has put President Bush's dilemma over Pakistan into uncomfortably sharp relief. The national intelligence estimate warned that a resurgent al Qaeda has "regenerated" a comfortable safe haven in the northwestern tribal regions of Pakistana country that also happens to be one of Bush's most frequently praised allies in the struggle against terrorism.
The upshot is tough. Not only has al Qaeda survived a six-year "war on terrorism," but it has also harnessed the invasion and occupation of Iraq to fuel its own growth, managed to rebuild its operational leadership, and resumed plotting ambitious attacks on the United States, all from inside a nation that has received as much as $10 billion in U.S. aid since 2001.
So, given that a key plank in Bush's counterterrorism strategy is to deny terrorists sanctuary, the NIE puts pressure on the Bush administration to take direct action to eliminate this new safe haven. After all, if al Qaeda does manage to pull off an attack in the coming months that is traced back to Pakistan, Bush administration officials will not be able to claim that they had no warning.
But the Bush administration has long been deeply reluctant to operate openly inside Pakistan. Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, recently warned about "the risk of taking actions in the less-well-governed areas of Pakistan...that would increase the problem." U.S. officials fear that open American intervention could prove akin to pouring gasoline on a brush fire. "There are an awful lot of potential recruits that are being engaged in the struggle in Kashmir that are held in check by the security forces in the rest of Pakistan," Fingar recently told Congress. "So it is not too great an exaggeration to say there is some risk of turning a problem in northwest Pakistan into the problem of all of Pakistan."
Indeed, perhaps because the options are so limited, Bush administration officials continue to put great stock in Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his public commitment to take on terrorism and extremism. Bush frequently mentions how perilous Musharraf's own position is in Pakistan, having survived multiple assassination attempts. It is also true that that some of the biggest counterterrorism successes (including the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed) came with Pakistan's assistance.
Bush's aides are eagerly latching on to Pakistan's latest offensive. Musharraf "gave a speech and said he's going to root out extremism in every nook of Pakistan," White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend told NPR's Morning Edition on Wednesday. "And every indication is that President Musharraf takes this very seriously and is going after it."
Early signs are mixed. Musharraf did send Pakistani troops back into some of the country's tribal regions in an operation that has killed scores of soldiers and militants. The move reverses a disastrous treaty with the country's tribes that ended up giving al Qaeda even more breathing room. It also comes after a bloody assault that ended an embarrassing six-month standoff with vigilantes in a radical mosque in Islamabad who were trying to forcibly impose their version of Islamic law.
Musharraf also faces a complicated political situation. Having come to power in a military coup, he relies on the country's religious parties for much of his support these days, particularly as Pakistan's secular parties grow increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in restoring democracy.