Timing, as they say, is everything.
On the same day that President Bush and senior U.S. officials were meeting with the brand new Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and earnestly restating their belief and commitment in Pakistani sovereignty, missiles struck a small compound in northwestern Pakistan, killing six including possibly a senior Al Qaeda operative.
Early reports from the province of South Waziristan indicate that four Egyptians and two Pakistanis died in the attack. While it is possible that the Egyptians were foreign exchange students, there is a chance that they were involved in a terrorist hijinx.
Local residents and Pakistani military and intelligence sources reported that one of those Egyptians was Abu Khabab al-Masri, an explosives expert, long time Al Qaeda trainer and close associate of Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman Zawahiri.
For those of you keeping score, if Masri was in fact killed in this missile strike, that’s a good thing. Sorry if that sounds insensitive. I can already sense the e-mail traffic lambasting me for cheering the death of a confirmed terrorist. What a load of crap. Masri trained numerous terrorists in bomb making skills and recently has been active in sending suicide bombers and car bombs into Afghanistan to attack Afghan citizens, U.S. and NATO forces.
It could be imagined, if one were inclined to speculate, that the missiles carried a Made in America stamp. Who says we don’t manufacture things in this country anymore? Locals said they heard a drone or drones overhead prior to the missile attack on the compound, which as the crow flies is only about three miles at most from the Afghanistan border.
This of course is the much discussed autonomous tribal region where the Pakistani military exerts little to no authority and the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been trying to reconstitute themselves. While we here at the PWB always hate to oversimplify things, it is fair to say that the situation in this particular corner of the world is FUBAR. In fact, mapmakers around the world should consider renaming the area. They could divide it into North Fubar and South Fubar.
The abridged version of the story is that after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, leftover Taliban and Al Qaeda went in search of new digs. Their new dream home didn’t have that many requirements… familiar location, proximity to other fundamentalists, welcoming neighbors, no police or military presence, easy commute to an existing war with the West and, if possible, city water and sewer.
They didn’t have to look far, returning to their old stomping grounds along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where decades before they or their fathers and other family members had established camps and training centers during the effort to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
Talk about your circle of life.
You didn’t have to be a think tank egghead or an extra clever intelligence analyst to guess where they would go after being driven out of Afghanistan. It also wouldn’t have been rocket science to predict 6 or 7 years ago that once they relocated in the Pakistani frontier region, flushing them out would be a very challenging task. We’ve know for a very long time that this particular area is effectively out of reach, both from Pakistani government and military influence, and from U.S. and allied military and intelligence elements.
While it sounds exciting and very manly to say we’ll march in there and undertake unilateral operations if the Pakistani government can’t clean up Dodge, the reality is somewhat more complicated. Oddly enough, Pakistani public opinion polls show an overwhelming negative response to the question “Would you support unilateral operations by American or allied troops in the frontier region?” The Taliban and Al Qaeda response to the same question also trended heavily negative.
While I don’t know this for sure, I suspect that the Pakistani population’s response to U.S. troops marching inside their country would be angry and violent. If you think it’s been difficult getting their full cooperation with the counterterrorism effort so far, try getting them on our side after our soldiers have crossed their border without their support and assistance.
That isn’t to say we haven’t made the effort. Aside from this weeks missile strike, there have been several other similar attacks during this year alone. A predator drone attack at the beginning of 2008 managed to extinguish another senior Al Qaeda member, Abu Laith al-Libi. These strikes have resulted in increased tension between the U.S. and Pakistan, but the death from above nature of the incursions, as opposed to possible boots on the ground, has so far limited the backlash from the Pakistani population.
The problem is that we will be unable to significantly impact the Taliban and Al Qaeda scourge by carrying out the occasional missile strike. The predator is a great tool in the counterterrorism kitbag, but it’s incapable of solving the problem we’re facing in this part of the world all by its lonesome drone self.
The current administration has tried with decidedly mixed results over the years to get the Pakistani government to fully commit against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. With the exception of the occasional effort by the military or frontier troops, the Pakistani effort has been more appeasement than confrontation.
There is little interest, and almost no enthusiasm, within the Pakistani forces or intelligence service to engage in the sort of long, aggressive campaign that would be required to clean house. And once again, public opinion there would run strongly against such a campaign, even though it would be waged by Pakistani forces. Public opinion tends to be important in countries where populations are prone to violent protests and government topplings.
The good news, and the PWB does like to think of itself as a glass half full operation, is that we have benefited greatly from Pakistani assistance over the years. Some of our more important successes against Al Qaeda have come as a result of direct cooperation with Pakistani intelligence, military and law enforcement. This cooperation must continue and increase if we are going to successfully reduce the threat from Al Qaeda and the Taliban to the lowest possible level. But to do that, to minimize the threat to the point of near irrelevance, we will need to see a Pakistani effort that, to date, hasn’t been seen.
The reality is that U.S. forces can’t operate in the region unilaterally unless we somehow suspend disbelief and decide the risk versus gain is worthwhile. The next possibility, U.S. and Pakistani troops fighting side by side against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, is also highly unlikely given the backlash the Pakistani government would experience.
Which leaves us with the final option, the Pakistani forces and intelligence service working to clean up the mess in the autonomous tribal region on their own in concert with whatever assistance they’re willing to accept from us. A serious military campaign coupled with a sustained and seriously resourced effort to bring the region under the control and care of the government.
In the meantime, while were waiting for that little miracle, all we can do is what we are doing. Work to the degree possible with the Pakistanis to gather intelligence, search for operational leads, minimize the impact of the Taliban and Al Qaeda as they make their forays into Afghanistan and fire the occasional missile.
I believe it was Yogi Berra who said “nations act in their own self interest”. Yogi of course was one of the all time baseball greats and also a frustrated amateur political scientist. I may have misquoted him, but let’s move on. The PWB fact checker has already left for the day.
The point being, Pakistan isn’t going to remove the Taliban and Al Qaeda threat in the frontier region simply because we give them aid, provide them with training and talk about how their presence is destabilizing Afghanistan and contributing to the threat of terrorism around the world. To paraphrase Yogi, if it’s not in their national interest, the fat lady ain’t gonna’ sing. Or something like that.
At the point where the Taliban and Al Qaeda presence threatens to destabilize Pakistan, that’s when we’ll see a significant response. We saw a similar situation in Saudi Arabia in recent years when the ruling family realized they stood to lose their place on the food chain if they allowed the extremist problem to continue unchecked.
Over the next year or two we’ll undoubtedly pull troops out of Iraq and add troops to the effort in Afghanistan. That will in all likelihood help to further stabilize that country and allow for continued progress in the development of the infrastructure and government. What it won’t do unfortunately is resolve the problem across the border in Pakistan.
Til’ next week, stay safe.
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, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures and two new BBC drama series finishing production in the U.K.