Two things have become clear in 2007. One is that Pakistan is no longer an effective ally in the war on terror. Pakistan has lost its ability, if the troubled state ever had it, to combat terrorists inside large swaths of its borders. The second is that while containment of al-Qaeda may delay horrific attacks, it does not stop them and only increases the eventual need to confront the enemy on the battlefield. These, along with other lessons learned in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, are the lessons we must heed to determine that there is but one unacceptable option in dealing with our enemies' growth in Pakistan. Simply stated, we cannot ignore the situation while hoping for a renewed and vigorous push by the Pakistani military against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
If we choose to examine the situation in some detail, and we must, we will see both the imperative for action on our part as well as the potential for dealing a third devastating blow to al-Qaeda. The first devastating blow was the crushing of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the second was and is the on-going operations in Iraq. Both altered the course of operations for al-Qaeda in such a way as to divert their attentions away from offensive attacks and towards survival. From Afghanistan, al-Qaeda found refuge in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. From Iraq, should our current efforts continue unabated, they'll find no refuge but defeat.
In the years following their flight from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and their Taliban protectors found a haven in the rough terrain of North and South Waziristan. Their new home wasn't immediately as welcoming as Afghanistan had been. It took a couple of years of bloody struggle to drive President Musharraf's troops into acknowledging they could not win.
After heavy losses, Musharraf took a new tact. His brokering of accords, ostensibly peace agreements with Taliban-aligned tribal leaders, resulted in al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban increasing its attacks across the border into Afghanistan, ramping up its training of new terrorists, and the eventual pressing further into Pakistan's FATA regions and beyond to the neighboring North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and even the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Pakistan's capital city Islamabad. On October 18, the attack on Benazir Bhutto's motorcade in the southern port city of Karachi further demonstrated al-Qaeda's reach and ambitions within Pakistan.
Ceding Time Has Served al-Qaeda
Isolating and containing the enemy may not have been the publicly expressed objective of the Musharraf government, yet it certainly was one of the hopes the Pakistani president had as he ceded both North and South Waziristan, as well as the Bajaur, Swat and Mohmand agencies which followed afterwards. From his perspective it would be as if he purchased time - time to quiet the dissatisfied political class, time to build an alliance capable of maintaining authority as he gave up direct control of the military, and time to effect the economic and military gains needed to eventually combat a known and sworn enemy.
Time, by its very nature, however takes no sides. Time bought for the continued political survival of Musharraf has also served our enemies. And the more active and aggressive between the two has gained the most and also faced less opposition from the local population. Thus, al-Qaeda, not Musharraf, has seen the greater success in the time ostensibly purchased by the tribal agreements in the Waziristan agencies and others.
More than 30 fully operational terrorist training camps have been constructed within the officially and unofficially ceded terrains of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan. Just a few of them are exclusive to the Taliban, where men are hastily trained on the basics of weapons usage and then dispatched across the border for attacks into Afghanistan. The vast majority of the training camps, however, are believed to have been churning out far more professionally capable al-Qaeda terrorists, many with the express purposes of infiltrating Western nations to carry out future attacks. The honed military capabilities of the resurgent al-Qaeda, and to some extent the Taliban, has resulted in more direct engagements, both as ambushes and direct attacks on the Pakistani regular army and its special forces units. The highly motivated, well trained and effectively organized enemy units have defeated their Pakistani opposition or seen them surrender, retreat or flee.
And while al-Qaeda has utilized their gifts of time and territory to the fullest extent possible, time is increasingly Musharraf's bane. Not only does his domestic political support and power dwindle with each day that passes, soldiers of his Pakistani army sympathetic to the Islamists desert in defections to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in what has been described as a “steady stream” in numbers that are not insignificant. An influx of professionally trained military men is certainly not insignificant for the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance whose greatest advantage is not numbers, but ferocity, determination and motivation.
In recent weeks, the Pakistani regular army and the less professional paramilitary forces of the Frontier Corps have been engaged in renewed and bloody battles with Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in North Waziristan. Accounts have not been favorable thus far, and despite claims that Pakistan will "once and for all" deal with the enemy, establishing strong-holds in Mir Ali, Miranshah, and other towns in the region, it is doubtful that the effort will result in the eradication of the safe zones for training, the free flow of funding, the base of operations for planning, nor the enemy itself. The most positive aspect of the ongoing effort is that Pakistan has taken the fight to the enemy in a significant way for the first time since the accords began to be signed in early 2006.
The battles between Pakistani forces and al-Qaeda provide an opportunity again to slow the growth of al-Qaeda's capabilities within the tribal areas and beyond. Yet again, it is not enough and not the solution.
Options Moving Forward
If ceding time has served al-Qaeda far more productively than it has Pakistan, then the practice of extremely limited engagement or even disengagement of al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies must end. A combination of efforts and resultant action must be carefully considered to avoid the regressive nature of the status quo and at least – for the time being – ensure al-Qaeda must invest resources committed to defensive operations inside their Pakistani global headquarters and safe havens.
Our options are neither unlimited nor are they as limited as some would have us believe. A weakened and withdrawing Musharraf serves neither his interests nor the better interests of the Pakistani people. Before addressing the options we have, we must recognize the imperative of Pakistani engagement, encourage President Musharraf to press the enemy, despite setbacks, and again extend the offer of support in forms our military and intelligence services are most adept at providing.
Option – Engage Tribal Leaders While Wielding The Stick
Likewise we should encourage, despite its unlikely success, attempts at reversing the internal tribal support that al-Qaeda and the Taliban receive from the inhabitants of the affected regions. We may envision an Anbar-like turn against al-Qaeda though it is far from the likely consequence.
Instead, our efforts should be aimed at assuring the tribal authorities of the FATA regions and beyond that so long as al-Qaeda and the Taliban are present, these regions and their people will have no peace, no safety and no autonomy. Should they aid Pakistan in the elimination of the enemy, they will in return receive the autonomy they value so greatly, along with assurances of economic and military support should they require it.
Reaching out to them will be neither simple nor straightforward, as the overwhelming majority have already made alliances with the enemy we are combating. Yet if assured – and demonstrated - that their people are not safe and they will not be free from outside attack with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in their midst, it remains at least possible that Pakistan may woo them into a reversal of allegiances.
Option – More Pressure/Assistance to Musharraf on Acting
By encouraging and, to a degree, enabling Musharraf to confront the enemy while attempting to usurp the enemies internal protectors, we effectively begin the process of retaking the role of the aggressor in the battle against al-Qaeda. This is not without risk and high costs for the Pakistani military and the civilian population of the FATA regions. Yet the cost is much lower than the that which would result from stasis or an acceptance of a status quo that, as has already been demonstrated, only strengthens the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.
Musharraf's reluctance to date has hinged on many factors. However, they have all borne characteristics which have led Musharraf and others inside Pakistan to believe that relative inaction – inasmuch as is possible – is less costly at current than action. This perception must change and the stasis of al-Qaeda's condition within the regions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas seen for what it is – a period of time to build the greater threat more capable of seizing Pakistan and attacking US and Western targets.
To its credit, the Administration has pursued a course of both carrots and sticks with Pervez Musharraf, usually only permitting the carrots public release. This has been a wise approach and relatively effective approach. However, the current calculus determining the mix of carrots and sticks – public or private – must be revisited and recalculated. A new formulation is required in order to further compel the Pakistani president to aggressively press al-Qaeda and the Taliban within his own borders.
Option – The “Dirty War” Approach
One avenue that can and should be better developed is something that has been termed as a “Dirty War” approach. Requiring more than just “pinprick strikes” inside Pakistan, Daveed Gartestein-Ross writes that “[w]e need to better understand the patronage networks that al-Qaeda and the Taliban benefit from, and undermine them.” 'Undermine' is a sanitized manner of describing disruption that includes covert penetration and targeting key players and facilitators for arrest when possible and killing when necessary.
In his analysis, Gartenstein-Ross quoted a senior military intelligence officer who said, “What I think we should do in Pakistan is a parallel version of what Iran has run against us in Iraq: giving money, empowering actors. Some of this will involve working with some shady characters, but the alternative--sending U.S. forces into Pakistan for a sustained bombing campaign--is worse.” To be sure, a large-scale stand-alone bombing campaign against an enemy deeply embedded within the civilian population would directly undercut any gains possibly made through concurrently engaging tribal leaders.
While as a standalone strategy the “Dirty War” option is not enough, it is absolutely essential and a potential force multiplier if successfully engaged.
Option – Increased Direct/Indirect US Military Intervention
US military planners may conceive of options including significant air and special operations enabled direct US attacks on the enemy encampments, or in similar efforts in support of the Pakistani military once engaged with al-Qaeda forces. They may also conceive a large scale counterinsurgency force deployment into the FATA and NWFP. There remain also many degrees of engagement between the two that may also be considered.
The political will of the American public is unlikely to support a large scale engagement, as the costs of what would be seen as a third conflict zone on a military perceived as already stretched too thin by many is too high. It wouldn't be a matter of whether the US military could accomplish the objective of eradicating the enemy in these areas as much as it would be a question of whether or not the political and military leadership could or would effectively communicate the value of such an operation - despite its almost assured high costs.
What is certain is that the US must, either directly or through current or new allies, engage the al-Qaeda enemy inside Pakistan. We are much more effective and secure as a nation when our will determines the time, place and nature of combat than when holding course while the enemy builds, plots and attacks. No matter the scale of our engagement, the US must find a course which replaces al-Qaeda's confidence in their security with concern for the protection of their assets, personnel and leaders. Their concerns must be those of survival as they are now in Iraq. We must engage and challenge the local populations to rebut the ideological views of al-Qaeda, while simultaneous permitting them to maintain or increase their independence, religious and cultural footing and their opportunities for economic growth.
Non-Negotiable Requirement - Action
No single option above solves the ominous riddle of Pakistan, but rather some measure of combination. But whatever combination proves the winning calculus – including the possibility of other options not articulated here - the ultimate answer to defeating al-Qaeda within Pakistan is action. Be it through Pakistani forces, US and Coalition forces and/or that of as yet undeveloped allies, we must take decisive and aggressive steps to defeat the enemy within Pakistan's tribal regions. Our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq should serve as guides, and with appropriate adaption, we should retake the initiative and begin the hunt anew.
While much of the news coverage of our operations this year in Iraq has focused on the 'surge' with respect to the number of troops in country - the real story is the surge in initiative and focus. We have sought the enemy, displaced him from his encampments, constrained his avenues of egress and engaged him at the time and place of our selection – now, wherever he is. Through regaining the initiative – taking decisive action – al-Qaeda in Iraq has been damaged to the point that some are even calling for a declaration of victory of sorts over them. While this is premature, the conditions that make it even fathomable are the result of action.
We must employ an adaptation of these tactics, combined with the patience to win over the local population's support and the continued extension of our support for President Musharraf and his efforts to manage his political and military opposition. This will certainly result in a higher likelihood of success than watching the hours pass as al-Qaeda strengthens and reacquires its targets here and elsewhere.
Regardless of which option – or variations thereof – becomes the chosen course, it is abundantly clear that the only unacceptable option toward defeating al-Qaeda in its Pakistani global headquarters is the maintenance of the status quo. For the status quo is a strengthening al-Qaeda, and that nets us farther from victory, greater security and the defeat of al-Qaeda, not closer.