Welcome back to another edition of the Peoples Weekly Brief. It’s been a fascinating week in the world of counterterrorism, homeland defense, intelligence and all things security related.
This week, we’re turning the focus to our old nemesis, Usama Bin Laden. America’s Lex Luthor has turned up in the news this past week as a by-product of our frustration with the efforts, or lack thereof, of Pakistan in controlling and stamping out Taliban and Al Qaeda activities in the country’s wild west frontier land.
The Waziristan region of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, has always been considered essentially untamed by a central government. This past year, the government of President Pervez Musharraf entered into a deal with the tribal leaders of the region. Boiled down, it goes like this… “you fellas quit with the attacks into Afghanistan and all that harboring of Taliban remnants and Al Qaeda and we’ll leave ya’ll alone.”
I admittedly am paraphrasing the actual terms, but you get the point. Anyway, nobody, probably including President Musharraf, thought the deal was going to work well. And it hasn’t.
Just this past week, the new director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, plonked down in a chair facing the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and announced…”uhh, the boys are back in town.”
Here again, I’m paraphrasing. What he advised the senators and staff members was that Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, who has dutifully played Smee to Bin Laden’s Captain Hook for some time now, have been supervising the effort to establish or reinvigorate Al Qaeda camps in the remote, mountainous Waziristan region of Pakistan.
According to McConnell’s testimony, and information supplied by other U.S. intelligence personnel, Bin Laden is reportedly overseeing an effort to create in Pakistan what Al Qaeda enjoyed in Afghanistan prior to the removal of the Taliban following the Sept. 11 attacks-- namely, an organized structure of training camps and a command and control infrastructure that could oversee attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the globe, including inside the United States.
Now Pakistan, for quite some time, actively refuted the idea that Al Qaeda and Taliban elements were taking refuge in their country. When that became difficult to do with a straight face, they took to throwing up their hands and saying “…hey, we’re doing everything we can to get rid of them.”
Here it would be helpful to review Pakistan’s past relationship with the Taliban, and also the Taliban’s past involvement with Al Qaeda, and the involvement of the Pakistani intelligence services in providing support to the Taliban. But we don’t have enough space to do that justice in this column. My suggestion is that you bone up on this if possible… it’s a fascinating and complex web of relationships.
At the same time, it is important to understand the precarious position of President Musharraf. He continually walks a line between supporting the war on terror and not completely alienating the elements of his own government and population who either a) disapprove of the support to the U.S.-led war on terror, or b) approve of and generally support the agendas of the Taliban and Al Qaeda or possibly c) both.
Regardless, there has been a growing concern within the U.S. intelligence and military communities, and among some of our allies and foes (more on that momentarily) that last year’s treaty between Musharraf’s administration and the tribal leaders essentially created a safe haven, or a relatively safe haven, in which the Taliban and Al Qaeda could regroup, reconnect, plan and generally further their various objectives.
The increasing frequency of attacks being carried out across the border in Afghanistan, as well as a rising number of suicide bombings within Pakistan itself, and recent attacks carried out in Iran near the Pakistan border, has created a situation where the U.S., Pakistan and Iran are all expressing the same concern. Which makes for strange bedfellows.
We shouldn’t get too excited that Iran just this week, via a leading cleric, stated that Pakistan has become a “terrorist sanctuary.” While they may be expressing a similar concern, they are doing so for vastly different reasons. Implied in the same statement was that somehow the U.S. might have something to do with the recent attacks against Iranian Revolutionary Guards and policemen. And the cleric strongly suggested that Pakistan should realign itself with Iran and forsake involvement with the United States.
But it is fascinating, and somewhat bizarre, that Iran is validating U.S. intelligence concerns about the growing threat from terrorist elements in Pakistan.
Now, in reality, we’ve enjoyed a number of important successes in the war on terror over the past few years that would not have happened without the assistance of the Pakistani government, military and intelligence services. This assistance should not be forgotten, particularly since every time Musharraf is publicly seen supporting the U.S., the U.K. and others in the war on terror, he provides his opposition back home with more ammunition in their effort to destabilize his government.
And if you want to talk about distasteful scenarios, how about seeing Musharraf being replaced by elements supportive of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Last time we checked, Pakistani had nuclear weapons. Maintaining Pakistan’s stability is certainly near the top of our To-Do list.
Can Pakistan do more to wrest control of the border region and minimize or remove Taliban and Al Qaeda elements? Certainly. But we shouldn’t underestimate the political forces at work in Pakistan and the constraints felt by Musharraf in his balancing act between support to the U.S. and staying in power.
As an offshoot of the Pakistan situation and growing concern over what’s happening in the border region, there seem to be two particularly popular themes making a comeback among people inclined to talk about such things:
1) The war in Iraq kept us from capturing Bin Laden and thus we now have to deal with their resurgence in Pakistan’s border region.
2) If Pakistan won’t deal with the problem, let’s just do it ourselves.
Frankly, the logic of the argument, often put forth by people who quickly move from normal discourse to spittle-spewing rant, that we haven’t caught Bin Laden and ended the war on terror because we got sidetracked by Iraq, has always escaped me. It implies, among other things, that the U.S. military and intelligence organizations are incapable of multi-tasking.
The reason we haven’t caught Bin Laden is not because we are mired in Iraq. We haven’t caught Bin Laden because our intelligence isn’t good enough (not through lack of effort mind you) and because he maintains a restricted, highly compartmentalized existence in a part of the world where we have limited to no access and he has tremendous support.
Anyone who argues that the war on terror has been somehow severely hampered by Iraq needs to fully review our successes in capturing or killing members of the Al Qaeda organization around the globe. I would argue that Bin Laden has taken on too much status as a target in the war on terror. Obviously we need to continue the effort to track him down and terminate his freedom, but there still seem to be an inordinate number of people who believe that somehow capturing or killing Bin Laden will wrap up the war on terror.
This would imply that Bin Laden is the tie that binds Al Qaeda. The ties that bind the loose confederation of elements that make up Al Qaeda are numerous and include an almost incomprehensible and violent intolerance of ideas different from their own, a twisted radicalization of Islam and disregard for human life. When Bin Laden is finally dealt with, it should not be interpreted as a death blow to Al Qaeda.
Point number two above, that if Pakistan won’t deal with the growing threat in their border region we should do it ourselves, implies that a) we can operate unilaterally in that difficult region, b) our intelligence is good enough currently to take decisive action, and c) Musharraf could politically withstand having the U.S. take unilateral military action on Pakistan territory.
The right course of action is what we’ve been watching unfold over the past few weeks. A growing, sometimes uncomfortable dialogue with Pakistan and the Afghan government over the need to clamp down on the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s apparent resurgence. This is not a problem we can solve on our own. However, if we can align the elements properly, a task force approach, using the intelligence and military capabilities of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.S., can resolve this problem.
In looking at the war on terror, homeland defense, security and the global risks looming on the horizon, we’re soliciting your responses to the question “What’s keeping you up at night?” Let me know what’s got you bothered and what you find unsettling.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, and appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker also serves as a script consultant and advisor within the entertainment industry, lending his technical expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," and the major motion pictures "Proof of Life" and "Spy Games."