Our Pals in Pakistan

Making an unannounced stop in Pakistan on Monday, Vice President Cheney "expressed U.S. apprehensions of regrouping of al-Qaeda in the tribal areas and called for concerted efforts in countering the threat" according to an aide to Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. According to Musharraf, Pakistan "has done the maximum in the fight against terrorism." Furthermore, Musharraf contends that there is no evidence that either Osama bin Laden or the Taliban’s Mullah Omar are hiding out in Pakistan. But if bin Laden and company are not in Pakistan, where does Musharraf think they are? Did they flee Afghanistan to sip piña coladas on the beach in Fiji?

Pakistan is supposed to be an ally in the war on terrorism. The United States should not have to plead with an ally to go after public enemy number one. Nor should the United States have to put up with constant excuses for why the man responsible for ordering the Sept. 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon remains at large.

To be sure, some of the bigger successes in the war on terrorism have come in Pakistan. The biggest success being the March 2003 capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. In each of these successes, the U.S. military or intelligence was involved in some way. But when left to their own devices, there has been a Keystone Kops-like aspect to Pakistani efforts. For example, in March 2004 the Pakistani military claimed they had surrounded several hundred al-Qaeda fighters, including a "high value target" thought to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command. But when the dust settled from the pounding by helicopter gunships and artillery in southern Waziristan, Zawahiri was nowhere to be found. Despite Pakistani military claims to have sealed off a 20-square-mile area that no one could have escaped from, Zawahiri either slipped the noose or was never there to begin with.

Another farce also occurred in March 2004 when Pakistani intelligence claimed that al-Qaeda spy chief Abu Mohammed al Masri (AKA Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists for his involvement in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya) was killed. The next day, however, the Pakistanis admitted to a case of mistaken identity – the slain militant was only a small fry local operative and not an al-Qaeda big fish. To add insult to injury, not only did the Pakistanis come up empty-handed during their March 2004 terror sweep, but they also had 12 soldiers killed and 15 wounded when a convoy was ambushed.

Although capturing or killing bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda leadership will not put an end to the terrorist threat facing America, they are nonetheless important targets – too important to be delegated to the Pakistanis if they are unable or unwilling to mount a serious effort to hunt them down. Gary Schroen – a former CIA officer who oversaw agency operations in the region until August 2001 – believes Musharraf is willing to hand over lesser al-Qaeda figures, but unwilling to go after any of the big fish because he fears a horrendous Islamic backlash if he is seen as capturing or killing a man viewed as Robin Hood by many Muslims around the world. According to Newsweek‘s Michael Hirsch:

"As evidence, Schroen says that it took the Pakistanis five months to act against [Abu Faraj] al-Libbi [thought by many analysts to be Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s successor] after the Americans delivered intelligence on the whereabouts of an al-Qaeda suspect who could not, at the time be specifically identified; Schroen believes the Pakistanis acted only after determining that the suspect was not bin Laden but a smaller fish. ‘We gave them information on Libbi back in December [2004 – al-Libbi was captured in May 2005],’ says Schroen…. ‘They didn’t want to do it.’"

Lack of seriousness on the part of the Pakistani government is further evidenced by all their deals to halt or curb military operations in southern Waziristan, the very area where bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership are thought to be in hiding. For example, in April 2004 the Pakistani military announced it had reached an agreement to halt military operations against tribesmen in return for a pledge not to harm Pakistan’s interest. Yet, at the same time, the tribesmen announced they were ending their hunt for al-Qaeda militants. The most recent deal was struck with tribal leaders last September, in which they are supposed to take responsibility for curbing militant activities. As with past deals, critics believe that the Musharraf government has abdicated its responsibility and that the deal essentially cedes control of the area to militants, allowing them to step up recruitment and cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.

But if Pakistan is going to claim to be an ally in the war on terrorism – and be treated as such – such folly cannot be allowed to continue. If – for whatever reasons – the Pakistani government is not willing or able to go after al-Qaeda with a vengeance, then the U.S. government must be willing to take matters into its own hands. This does not mean a large-scale military incursion of Pakistan. Rather, it means that U.S. special forces must be allowed to act in discrete operations against al-Qaeda targets when there is reliable, actionable intelligence. Officially – for understandable reasons – the Musharraf government may not be able to sanction U.S. military operations in Pakistan. But unofficially, the Pakistani government needs to allow U.S. forces to conduct covert operations into Pakistan against al-Qaeda.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. On the one hand, the United States does not want to take actions that would destabilize the Musharraf regime because a likely successor government could be radical Islamists who would inherit Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But at the same time, the United States cannot continue to embrace Musharraf as an unequivocal ally in the war on terrorism if his government is not willing to do more to find bin Laden and other important al-Qaeda figures hiding out in Pakistan.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States cannot afford to turn a blind eye (as it seemingly does to Saudi Arabia – has anyone noticed how the U.S. government doesn’t complain about all the Saudi money being used to fund the Sunni insurgency in Iraq?) to the possibility that Pakistan may be enabling and facilitating al-Qaeda. Although it is important to consider the source, India has previously claimed that the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI is aiding al-Qaeda. Given the ISI’s involvement aiding the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and their previous support for bringing the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, such accusations cannot be blithely ignored.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.