By Anwar Iqbal; Dawn, April 21, 2008
WASHINGTON, April 20: The US preoccupation with Iraq should not cloud American military planners’ ‘vision of threats’ emanating from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), says Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Clearly, it’s where I would pick if I were going to pick a place where the next attack is going to come from,” he said. “That’s where Al Qaeda is, that’s where their leadership is, and we’re going to have to figure out a way to resolve that challenge.”
The admiral’s assessment of the situation in Fata, given during a talk at Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation, reflects a new threat perception in America in which Fata occupies a central position.
Last week, President George W. Bush told ABC News that if another 9/11 attack were to be launched on the United States it would most likely be planned in Pakistan.
Earlier, CIA Director Michael Hayden said that Al Qaida had regrouped in the tribal borderland and appears to be planning another attack on the United States.
Another key US intelligence official, FBI Director Robert Mueller, warned that Al Qaeda operatives hiding in the tribal belt “won’t go away quietly in the night.”
This sudden emphasis on Al Qaeda’s presence in tribal areas followed bitter criticism of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies in Congress and the media.
The critics pointed out that 9/11 attacks were planned in Afghanistan, and not Iraq, and by diverting US resources to Iraq the Bush administration gave Al Qaeda a free hand to re-establish itself in Fata.
The administration countered this criticism by claiming that the war in Iraq was actually a war against Al Qaeda but there were not many buyers for this theory, which forced the administration to refocus on the threat from the tribal belt.
During the last 10 days, the new threat perception — Al Qaeda leaders in Fata planning another 9/11 — had been discussed at dozens of gatherings in Washington.
At briefings at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, administration officials agreed with the general perception that the threat was real and that the United States cannot afford to ignore it.
This was also emphasised at congressional hearings where some lawmakers advised the US administration to take immediate steps to deal with this threat.
Some in the media and at Washington’s think-tanks went a step ahead and urged the administration to take direct military action against suspected Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan’s tribal belt.
But Admiral Mullen pointed out that the US did not have enough troops to undertake another major operation. He noted that while President Bush had pledged to send more troops to Afghanistan, their availability depended on the situation in Iraq.
This leads to another option; training Afghan troops to fight the militants. But Maj-Gen Robert Cone, Commanding General, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, told a recent briefing at the Pentagon that there were not enough Afghan troops to perform this “complicated” task in a “very, very difficult terrain.”
This leaves the Bush administration with one option: air strikes. Although US officials conceded that so far such strikes had not been very successful, they said that this was the only option the administration had if it wanted to capture a senior Al Qaeda leader before Mr Bush ends his tenure in January next year.