Political turmoil and a spate of brazen attacks by Taliban fighters are forcing Pakistan’s president to scale back his government’s pursuit of Al Qaeda, according to U.S. intelligence officials who fear that the terrorist network will be able to accelerate its efforts to rebuild and plot new attacks.
The development threatens a pillar of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy, which has depended on Pakistan to play a lead role in keeping Al Qaeda under pressure to reduce its ability to coordinate strikes.
President Pervez Musharraf, facing a potentially fateful election next month and confronting calls to yield power after years of autocratic rule, appears too vulnerable to pursue aggressive counter-terrorism operations at the behest of the United States, the intelligence officials said.
At the same time, the Pakistani military has suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks at the hands of militants in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda figures are believed to be hiding.
U.S. intelligence officials said the conditions that have allowed Al Qaeda 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. counter-terrorism official who closely monitors Pakistan’s pursuit of Al Qaeda in the rugged frontier region. The official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
“I think the prospect for aggressive action . . . is probably not good, no matter what,” said the official, referring to the federally administered tribal areas where Al Qaeda is particularly strong. If Musharraf is removed from office or agrees to a power-sharing arrangement with political foes, the “change in government could well mean a diminution of cooperation on counter-terrorism,” 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 recent series of reversals by the Pakistan military.
“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 that the move could solidify a “safe haven, where the [Al Qaeda] leadership is secure, operational planners can do their business, and foreigners can come in and be trained and redeploy to the West.”
Meanwhile, Bin Laden declared war on Musharraf in a new audiotape released last week, a message that experts said was timed to take advantage of the political turmoil.
Over the years, Musharraf’s commitment to rooting out elements of Al Qaeda and the Taliban 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 Qaeda at a critical time, enabling it to regroup and reestablish 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 government forces in July stormed a radical mosque in Islamabad, the capital.
Musharraf’s popular support has eroded rapidly this year, starting with a failed attempt to oust the nation’s chief justice.
The Pakistani leader, who seized power in a bloodless 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 reelected, a pledge questioned by opponents.
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 Qaeda, which has had limited success, could further falter. The intelligence official described it as a “caldron of events” that has become a significant complication in efforts to rein in terrorism.
The prevailing view among U.S. intelligence analysts is that Musharraf probably will remain in power, but in a significantly weakened position that may require him to embrace democratic reforms and share authority with one or more political rivals, U.S. officials said.
Such an arrangement would deprive Musharraf of the dictatorial power he has wielded, which enabled him to contain the political cost of carrying out counter-terrorism operations at the behest of the United States.
The unfolding situation has put Washington in the conflicted position of either pressing for democratic reforms in a nation where doing so is likely to undermine efforts to apprehend Bin Laden, or pushing to shut down terrorist camps linked to a series of plots against Western targets.
Polls in Pakistan suggest that Bin Laden is more popular than many of the Muslim nation’s politicians, and analysts say it is extremely difficult for the beleaguered Musharraf to remain aligned with the U.S.
“From a domestic politics perspective, sustained Pakistani action against Al Qaeda in [the tribal areas] would be suicidal,” said Seth Jones, an expert on terrorism and Pakistan at Rand Corp. “It would only increase hatred against his regime at the precise moment when he is politically weakest.”
That political turmoil could cost the Bush administration cooperation from a key ally in the Islamic world, one that has nuclear arms. Musharraf has been praised repeatedly by President Bush, and Pakistan has received more than $5.6 billion in aid over the last six years, most of it meant to reimburse the country for counter-terrorism efforts.
Under new pressure from Washington, Musharraf sent military divisions back into the tribal areas this summer. Initially, the forays appeared to catch Al Qaeda by surprise, U.S. intelligence officials said, prompting the organization to pull back.
But the government’s border troops recently have been subjected to a series of suicide attacks and kidnappings, the U.S. intelligence official said. Overall, dozens of Pakistani soldiers and hundreds of extremists and foreign fighters have been killed.
The bloodshed has added to the political pressure on Musharraf, who faces the widespread perception that he is sending Pakistani soldiers into harm’s way on behalf of the United States.
Even when the operations succeed, there is little payoff for Musharraf.
“The whole purpose of [U.S.-Pakistani] operations is to eliminate people who primarily target the United States and the West,” the senior counter-terrorism official said. That means Musharraf ends up being seen as “complicit in killing or capturing people who many Pakistanis think should be treated as heroes.”
But Musharraf has survived at least two assassination attempts by Al Qaeda that were seen as increasing his willingness to authorize operations against the Islamist group, and officials say they don’t expect Pakistan to abandon efforts to contain or pursue Al Qaeda.
“I don’t think they’re going to step away from the counter- terrorism effort entirely,” said the senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the subject. “It’s a national security issue for Pakistan.”
The United States has provided significant intelligence assistance for Pakistan’s pursuit of Al Qaeda, including the deployment of CIA teams and Predator surveillance drones.
Pakistan’s central government has never had substantial control over the border region. Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda figures fled to the rugged area after being flushed from Afghanistan. U.S. officials said the terrorist network was seen as increasingly isolated and in a financial crunch until Musharraf’s peace accord with the tribes last fall.
Since then, U.S. intelligence has tracked an influx of fighters and funds into the region. And counter-terrorism officials have encountered a series of plots, mostly in Europe, linked to Al Qaeda and Taliban training camps in Pakistan.
Authorities in Germany who disrupted an alleged bombing plot this month said at least five of the suspects had traveled to the tribal regions of Waziristan to receive training in the use of chemical explosives and detonators. The suspected German cell was rolled up in part because U.S. intelligence had intercepted suspicious communications between Pakistan and the German city of Stuttgart.
“Without significant steps to clear and hold territory within [the tribal areas], I don’t believe Al Qaeda can be defeated or significantly weakened,” said Jones, the Rand Corp. expert. “Consequently, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.”