February 19, 2007

AQ Making A Comeback In Waziristan, Part II

Following up on the story I posted below on Condoleezza Rice's "disappointment" with Pakistan over its truce with tribal leaders in Waziristan, the New York Times reports on how that truce has allowed not just the Taliban but also al-Qaeda to make a comeback. A series of blows to AQ by the US and its allies had relegated Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to mostly inspirational roles among jihadists. Now Zawahiri, at least, has become much more operational, thanks to the breathing room provided by the Musharraf deal:

Senior leaders of Al Qaeda operating from Pakistan have re-established significant control over their once-battered worldwide terror network and over the past year have set up a band of training camps in the tribal regions near the Afghan border, according to American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.

American officials said there was mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. Until recently, the Bush administration had described Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri as detached from their followers and cut off from operational control of Al Qaeda.

The United States has also identified several new Qaeda compounds in North Waziristan, including one that officials said might be training operatives for strikes against targets beyond Afghanistan.

American analysts said recent intelligence showed that the compounds functioned under a loose command structure and were operated by groups of Arab, Pakistani and Afghan militants allied with Al Qaeda. They receive guidance from their commanders and Mr. Zawahri, the analysts said. Mr. bin Laden, who has long played less of an operational role, appears to have little direct involvement.

Officials said the training camps had yet to reach the size and level of sophistication of the Qaeda camps established in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. But groups of 10 to 20 men are being trained at the camps, the officials said, and the Qaeda infrastructure in the region is gradually becoming more mature.

Counterterrorism experts analyze the stability and robustness of AQ in part by reviewing the frequency and timeliness of its broadcasts to the world. In 2006, the number of messages from bin Laden and Zawahiri doubled over the previous year, and the messages referred to events in a more timely manner -- sometimes within days, rather than several weeks as before. It demonstrates an ability to move tapes via courier much faster than before, which indicates a more stable network surrounding what American officials call "core al-Qaeda".

Western intelligence and military agencies are unsure how to proceed. American military strikes on these bases will violate Pakistani sovereignty, but Musharraf has not been willing to take on the task himself. The West cannot allow AQ to operate so easily, and the Bush doctrine certainly would apply here. However, if people thought Iraq was such a "meatgrinder", as one CQ commenter recently put it (and later retracted), it would be a walk in the park compared to an invasion of Waziristan and an occupation of that region. It would almost certainly pull down the Musharraf government in Islamabad, and its replacement would almost certainly be Islamist. Its army and intelligence services would immediately begin to attack American positions in the mountainous country, and we would then be at open war with a nuclear power. Plus, the lines of communication would make it difficult to resupply our troops even if that war went reasonably well; we could not hope to hold Waziristan for a significant period of time.

Besides, given the nature of AQ, even targeted American strikes could not guarantee that they could be "surgical", ie, not create collateral damage to civilian populations. We also could not be sure that we had destroyed the core AQ targets, although the camps would be enough for now. Escalation of the war in Afghanistan would have to get NATO's buy-in, and it would open up the White House to more attacks from Congress, including another defunding threat.

We face a daunting task and an irrevocable threat in Pakistan now, and the situation has to change in one direction or the other. Afghanistan, by comparison, was easy. The Taliban government had been nothing more than a paper front for terrorist groups, not a large military threat. Now that the Taliban and AQ have taken refuge in Pakistan -- and that Musharraf seems unwilling to do what it takes to eject them -- we have a much bigger problem on our hands. If we go to war with Pakistan over AQ, we could pull in India and Iran and perhaps the entire region in a nuclear standoff that has few positive outcomes possible. (via Hot Air)


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