Turmoil, attacks limit Pakistan's al-Qaida pursuit: US intelligence
The News, September 23, 2007
WASHINGTON: Political turmoil and brazen attacks by Taliban fighters are forcing Pakistan's president to scale back his government's pursuit of al-Qaida, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
The development threatens a pillar of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, which has depended on Pakistan to play a lead role in keeping al-Qaida under pressure in order to reduce its ability to coordinate future strikes.
President Pervez Musharraf, facing a potentially fateful election in October and confronting calls to yield power after years of autocratic rule, appears too vulnerable to continue pursuing counterterrorism operations for the United States, the intelligence officials said.
And the Pakistani military has suffered embarrassing setbacks at the hands of militants in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures are believed to be hiding.
As a result, U.S. intelligence officials said, the conditions that have allowed al-Qaida to regain strength are likely to persist, enabling it to continue training foreign fighters and plot new attacks.
"We are worried," said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official who monitors Pakistan's pursuit of al-Qaida in the rugged frontier region.
If Musharraf is removed from office or agrees to share power with political foes, there also are concerns that the "change in government could well mean a diminution of cooperation on counterterrorism," the official added.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said Pakistani retrenchment appears to have begun.
"We're already beginning to see some signs of that," the official said, citing a series of reversals by the Pakistan military in recent weeks.
"In the next few days we're probably going to see a withdrawal of forces that the Pakistanis put there," the intelligence official said, adding the move could solidify a "safe haven, where the leadership is secure, operational planners can do their business and foreigners can come in and be trained and redeploy to the West."
Over the years, Musharraf's commitment to rooting out al-Qaida and Taliban elements has sometimes been questioned. Last fall, the president struck a peace agreement with tribal leaders in North and South Waziristan, scaling back military operations in return for a pledge that the tribes would rein in foreign fighters.
Instead, American intelligence officials said the deal took pressure off al-Qaida at a critical time, enabling it to regroup and re-establish ties with terrorist affiliates in other parts of the world.
In recent months, Musharraf has sent troops to the tribal areas, particularly after a series of suicide bombings by militants who vowed revenge after a July showdown in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, in which government forces stormed a radical mosque.
Musharraf's popular support has eroded rapidly in 2007, starting with a failed attempt to oust the nation's chief justice.
The Pakistani leader, who seized power in a coup in 1999, hopes to secure another presidential term in an Oct. 6 vote by national and provincial lawmakers. He faces legal challenges to his candidacy and some opposition parties plan to boycott the vote. In response to calls that he give up his post as military chief, Musharraf said he would do so after being re-elected, a pledge opponents questioned.
The developments have triggered new concern in the intelligence community that a six-year effort by the United States and Pakistan to root out al-Qaida, which until this point has had limited success, could further falter.
The unfolding situation has put the United States in the conflicted position of pressing for democratic reforms in a nation where doing so is likely to undermine efforts to apprehend bin Laden and shut down terrorist camps linked to plots against Western targets.
At a time when Pakistan polls suggest bin Laden is more popular than many of the Muslim nation's politicians, analysts say it is extremely difficult for Musharraf to remain aligned with the U.S.
The political turmoil could cost the United States cooperation from a key ally in the Islamic world, one that has nuclear weapons.