It’s not a bad idea to step back a few paces and remember the track record of those doing the estimating. Any discussion of a threat estimate from the vaunted U.S. intelligence "community" must begin with an acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence has often gotten things wrong, and perhaps done so more often than not. Even before the failure to "connect the dots" before 9/11 and the "slam dunk" on Saddam’s supposed WMDs, U.S. intelligence missed any number of key developments during the Cold War and failed to forecast the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire.
This is not necessarily a condemnation. Intelligence work in a world where hostile powers and entities work hard to keep their secrets, dispense disinformation, and produce surprises is more art than science, always involving more guesswork based on inherently incomplete information than is widely acknowledged. Even when not influenced by the desires of political leaders (which it usually is) intelligence estimates are just that estimates.
Nonetheless, even if it was released in part to make Americans more fearful and therefore less likely to object as our freedoms are whittled away, which was certainly part of the reason, the declassified brief summary of the National Intelligence Estimate released on Monday is rather troubling. The NIE represents the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, produced after painstaking if not necessarily imaginative review.
Its key findings have been widely publicized and discussed: "the U.S. Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years;" "the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment;" al-Qaeda "has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability," and "will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaeda in Iraq" are consistent with news reports and the work of independent groups that monitor terrorism like the Rand Corp. and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Bottom line: Five years after the 9/11 attacks, after the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars and a long and costly (in so many ways) war in Iraq, al-Qaeda is almost as strong as it was just before the 9/11 attacks, and certainly stronger than it was a year or two ago. This is quite remarkable; most authorities (and many al-Qaeda lieutenants) believed that al-Qaeda was on the ropes in 2002, with its operational base in Afghanistan denied, two-thirds of its leaders killed, its finances disrupted and Muslim clerics around the world criticizing it.
The NIE notes that part of the reason for al-Qaeda’s resurgence is its ability to reestablish core leadership and training facilities in the wild and woolly North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) of Pakistan. This ability was probably aided by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to negotiate a truce with tribal leaders in the region rather than continuing a military assault.
Some commentators have said that this means we should push Musharraf to go after the al-Qaeda-Taliban forces in the NWFP all the more aggressively. To some extent Pakistan is doing this already, in the aftermath of the Red Mosque attack. But it is worth remembering that, thug though he is, Musharraf faces problems in Pakistan, perhaps the least governable country in the world, that might outweigh doing the bidding of Uncle Sam. Indeed, if he appears too much the puppet of Uncle Sam, he loses standing and influence, already and probably perpetually shaky, in his own country and makes it all the more possible (though less likely than some alarmists fear) that his government would be displaced and the country’s fundamentalist mullahs could get their hands on nuclear weapons.
Right now it is in Musharraf’s interests in the context of domestic politics to go after a few fundamentalists in Waziristan and environs. It may be that the Pakistani government, by appearing strong in the wake of the Red Mosque affair, will strengthen its faltering grip on the rest of the country. Or it may be that it will find it is biting off more than it can chew.
It’s worth remembering, however, that Musharraf negotiated the "truce" 10 months ago with Waziri (etc.) tribal leaders because the Pakistani army had lost about 700 soldiers and accomplished little or nothing. Chasing al-Qaeda on behalf of the United states had turned out to be a losing proposition for him. It may be that al-Qaeda has been able to operate a little more effectively, with a little less harassment, since the truce, but the Pakistani army had not come close to rooting it out.
In part that is because of Kashmir, which hardly anybody ever discusses. Most Pakistanis in the tribal regions believe strongly that parts of Kashmir were taken from Pakistan unjustly by India way back in 1945, and a persistent guerrilla conflict has raged there, with varying degrees of intensity, for decades. Al-Qaeda has declared itself the ally of Kashmiri separatists and promises to train people to continue the fight on behalf of Kashmiri independence and/or merger with Pakistan, and to a great extent it has delivered. That’s why the tribes in the region cooperate with and conceal al-Qaeda leaders and operatives.
Unless and until the Kashmiri dispute is settled a very long shot indeed al-Qaeda will be able to find safe haven in the tribal lands so long as it produces trained fighters for the Kashmir struggle. The Pakistani and U.S. governments might be able to harass and harry them, but the chances of actually rooting them out are so low as to be virtually negligible.
Given all this, it is especially dismaying that the U.S. government seems to be approaching the problem the same way it seems to think it can solve every problem by throwing money around. The government plans to spend $750 million on “winning hearts and minds” in the region, by building hospitals, paying off tribal leaders and the like. However, as the New York Times reports, “even before the plan has been fully carried out, documents and officials involved in the planning are warning of the dangers of distributing so much money in an area so hostile that oversight is impossible, even by Pakistan’s own government.” I suspect it will make a few people rich and just about everyone contemptuous of Uncle Sucker.
So much for Pakistan, where in fact the U.S. ability to root out al-Qaeda is limited short of a full-scale invasion and even that would probably be more likely to turn out like the Iraq invasion than to lead to capturing bin Laden and neutralizing al-Qaeda Central. The U.S. decision to invade Iraq and the chaotic aftermath of that conflict have been at least as important when it comes to strengthening al-Qaeda and other loosely affiliated or unaffiliated jihadist groups and individuals around the world.
The NIE report identifies al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) as the terrorist organization’s "most visible and capable affiliate" and "the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland [the U.S., for those not versed in the language of empire]." The public version doesn’t say so, but AQI has raised significant money through criminal activities and is now subsidizing al-Qaeda Central. The U.S. presence in Iraq has been a significant motivating and recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups. A steady stream of recruits from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria and Europe have flowed back and forth into and out of Iraq, gaining invaluable hands-on experience in terrorism and guerrilla warfare in an urban environment.
We can’t undo what has been done and the seeds of violence that have been sown by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is surely possible, perhaps even likely that a hasty U.S. withdrawal could multiply the chaos and violence, though a longer-run perspective should take into account the extent to which the very occupying presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is an inherently destabilizing factor. Thus the violence that follows a U.S. withdrawal, while it might last a while, could be relatively short-term if Iraqis recognize that they’re on their own.
Once the U.S. is freed of the diversion of attention and resources the Iraqi commitment represent, it can focus more intelligently on the worldwide terrorist threat. That would mean, among other things, increasing the use of financial, police and paramilitary resources, unilaterally and in conjunction with allies, against terrorist activities, having learned that conventional military actions are of limited utility and can backfire. The next important step would be to reduce the U.S. military "footprint" and the inclination to meddle and control, in Muslim countries and elsewhere, depriving militants of a concrete grievance and recruiting tool. That will take a long-term perspective that has been sorely lacking in official American thinking.