War on terror loses ground

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Although the “war on terrorism” remains a consuming focus of the U.S. government, the Bush administration appears poised to leave behind a situation not unlike the one it inherited nearly eight years ago: a resurgent Al Qaeda ensconced in South Asia, training new recruits, plotting attacks against the West, and seemingly beyond the United States’ reach.

In dozens of interviews, senior U.S. national security, intelligence and military officials described a counter-terrorism campaign in Pakistan that has lost momentum and is beset by frustration.

CIA officers pursuing Al Qaeda fighters are confined largely to a collection of crumbling bases in northwestern Pakistan. Most are on remote Pakistani military outposts, where they are kept on a short leash under an awkward arrangement with their hosts -- rarely allowed to leave and often left with little to do but plead with their Pakistani counterparts to act.


“Everyone who serves in Pakistan comes back frustrated,” a former CIA case officer said. The case officer, like many other officials, spoke on condition of anonymity when describing U.S. counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan because the efforts are highly sensitive and the officials in many cases are not authorized to speak publicly.

Two troubled options define the U.S. approach. One is the present policy of counting on a politically evolving Pakistan to address the problem, which could allow Al Qaeda to operate relatively unmolested for years. The other, unilateral U.S. military action, even counter-terrorism hard-liners acknowledge, might only compound the militant threat.

Asked what might cause the United States to recalculate its present course, one high-ranking U.S. counter-terrorism analyst said, “Obviously, another attack on the homeland.”

“Had the plot in Britain in 2006 succeeded, we would not be having this conversation,” the official said, referring to an alleged scheme in which suspects were to detonate liquid explosives on transatlantic flights. “I suspect that in the spectrum of Pakistan as ally and Pakistan as territory that needs to be cleansed, we would have moved toward the latter.”

To some, such comments underscore a shift in mind-set since the Sept. 11 attacks, a step back from policies of preemptive action despite warnings from the CIA director in March that Al Qaeda’s base in Pakistan represents a “clear and present danger” to the West.

The co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, said, “The similarities between Afghanistan before Sept. 11 and Pakistan today are striking and deeply worrisome.


“At what point do you say we cannot tolerate this anymore?”

Despite the apparent parallels, there are key differences. Before Sept. 11 Afghanistan was diplomatically isolated and ruled by the harshly fundamentalist Taliban movement, but Pakistan has a democratically elected government generally friendly to the West.

New partners

Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani, who will meet with President Bush at the White House on Monday, and other senior officials say Pakistan already has made great sacrifices in confronting the militants, who use the country’s tribal areas as a springboard for attacks in Pakistan and on Western troops in Afghanistan.

Gillani, who took office in March, has pledged more action against Islamic militants, but also has warned that his government would not tolerate foreign troops. As a matter of policy, the Pakistani government does not publicly acknowledge the presence of U.S. covert operatives.

For now, U.S. strategy centers on two components. Over the long term, the administration has committed billions of dollars to aiding Pakistan and improving its military’s capabilities.

In the short term, the pursuit of Al Qaeda is centered on pressuring Pakistan to be more aggressive, using U.S. Special Forces teams and Predator unmanned aircraft to carry out airstrikes, and hoping that the few dozen CIA operatives working the region can eventually close in on Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in the area.

CIA operatives stationed in spartan compounds across the tribal region provide U.S. funding, equipment and intelligence to their Pakistani counterparts. But officials say it is a struggle to persuade the Pakistanis to act.


On some CIA bases, “it’s just well known that nothing is going to be done,” said the former CIA case officer who served in the region.

“We’d be like, ‘What about this guy? What about that guy? Can we get surveillance? How about targeting him?’ ” the former officer said. “We’d propose things and [Pakistani officials] would never get back to us.”

In other locations, kernels of cooperation have led to occasional arrests or missile strikes on suspected Al Qaeda compounds. But the successes have been fleeting, and the mission unfulfilled.

The CIA teams in the border region are part of a “surge” launched in 2006 after senior CIA officials had gathered for a tense counter-terrorism conference at the agency’s training compound, known as The Farm, near Williamsburg, Va.

“The question was posed, ‘Where is Osama and why haven’t we caught him?’ ” said a former CIA officer familiar with the matter. The reply from the agency’s Islamabad station chief reflected the frustration.

“Do you have any idea how few officers I actually have?” the station chief said, according to the account of the former officer. “There are more counter-terrorism officers in Rome.”


A different tack

Months later, the agency began moving in as many as 50 additional officers, most of them assigned to bases in what is known in Pakistan as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a largely lawless region that has been Al Qaeda’s base since its leadership fled Afghanistan in 2001.

The objective was to close in on Al Qaeda by going after “not the inner circle, but the second or third tier out,” said a former high-ranking CIA official involved in the decision.

Overall, the CIA has deployed about 200 people to Pakistan, according to current and former officials, making it the agency’s largest overseas operation outside Iraq.

But the CIA is only part of a much broader U.S. intelligence presence in the country. Officials said CIA operatives work alongside officers from the National Security Agency, which intercepts electronic communications, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which examines images from spy satellites.

The various agencies have formed a “joint targeting cell” at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, officials said. The cell pores over data from human and electronic sources to try to find Bin Laden and other figures.

Searching for fresh ideas, some officials have proposed employing some of the strategies of the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.


A senior Bush administration official said the National Security Council has spent much of the year debating whether the “Awakening” movement in Iraq’s Anbar province could be replicated in the Pakistani tribal areas. But discussions have bogged down amid skepticism that the model could work.

In Anbar, Sunni Arab sheiks fed up with the violence wrought by Sunni insurgents began cooperating with the U.S. military. Local fighters were persuaded to reject the Al Qaeda in Iraq group and join neighborhood security forces paid by the U.S. The effort led to a dramatic decrease in attacks in Anbar, once the most violent area of the country.

But the turnaround was aided by the presence of U.S. troops, who weakened Al Qaeda in Iraq and backed up the fledgling patrols. In Pakistan, there are no U.S. forces to support the few tribal leaders who might be willing to ally themselves with the Americans.

“There’s never going to be an Anbar Awakening in the FATA because we’re not there,” said a Pentagon official involved in Pakistan policy. “There’s no awakening unless you’re there to help to wake them up.”

Dubious allies

Compounding the difficulties, American spy agencies depend heavily on cooperation from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, elements of which are believed to have long-standing ties to the Taliban.

Underscoring the lack of trust, a former high-ranking CIA official said that the United States typically gives the Pakistani government less than an hour’s notice before launching a Predator missile strike, largely out of fear that more time might allow ISI sympathizers to tip off targets.


The ISI sometimes shares information from its network of tribal contacts, officials said. But it also routinely stonewalls CIA requests.

“They are in many cases intentionally keeping you in the dark,” said the former CIA official who served in the region.

The former official described one case in which a CIA agent near Waziristan, in the tribal area, pressed the ISI over several months to detain a Pakistani who appeared to be helping Al Qaeda operatives move safely around the region.

“He was a known Al Qaeda associate and facilitator,” the former CIA officer said. “But you bring it up 10 times and they never take the first step of planning anything. It’s like pushing against a marshmallow.”

Al Qaeda and the Taliban have also undermined the CIA’s efforts by cementing their relationships with tribal leaders through inter-marriage, as well as a bloody campaign of intimidation.

Several CIA officials said it is common for bodies to be found in the region with a note attached saying “American spy.” Several former CIA officials maintain that few of those killed truly had agency ties, but that the killings scare the local population.


On occasions, U.S. Special Forces teams have been sent into Pakistan. In 2006, one of the nation’s most elite units, Seal Team 6, raided a suspected Al Qaeda compound at Damadola.

At CIA headquarters in Virginia, a roomful of people watched on video streamed from a Predator surveillance plane, officials said. They included high-ranking officials such as Albert M. Calland III, then the deputy director.

“They choppered in, rappelled down and went into the compound,” said a former official familiar with the operation. “It was tactically very well executed.”

Several mid-level operatives were detained, according to the official. The raid was separate from the January 2006 Predator strike in Damadola that missed Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri, the official said.

But Special Forces missions in Pakistan have remained rare, officials said, for fear of embarrassing the Pakistani government and inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment.

As a result, Predator missile strikes have become the default U.S. response. CIA officials have even coined a term -- “squirters” -- for the survivors who are tracked by Predator cameras as they flee the wreckage.


Senior CIA officials said the Predator probably would be the weapon of choice even if Bin Laden were located, and that there was no plan to capture the Al Qaeda leader or his deputy.

According to officials, Bush made his preference clear during a visit to the agency after CIA Director Michael Hayden was sworn in. During a briefing, an agency officer alluded to “dealing with” Bin Laden.

Bush interrupted him: “You mean kill him.”

But those prospects seem increasingly distant amid political changes in Pakistan that could erode the country’s commitment to U.S. counter-terrorism objectives.

In fact, the new government has renewed an effort to strike peace accords with tribal leaders rather than confront them militarily. A similar strategy by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf a few years ago helped allow Al Qaeda to regroup, U.S. officials say.

Tension over Pakistan has emerged in the U.S. presidential campaign. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has said that U.S. forces should “take out” top militants if Pakistan did not act on firm intelligence. Republican Sen. John McCain, though not ruling out the possibility that he would do the same, accused Obama of trying to sound tough.

With Musharraf’s power in decline, U.S. attention has shifted to his successor as army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the former head of the ISI whose ties to the U.S. military date to 1988, when he attended a prestigious military school at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.


Pentagon officials said Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others have pressured Kayani to take action in the border regions. But Mullen and senior civilians also have urged caution, pointing to the fate of Musharraf, a once-respected military officer who lost favor within Pakistan in part over his Bush administration ties.

“Kayani has to be very careful about how much of the relationship he shows, because he doesn’t want to be perceived as a lackey,” said a Pentagon official involved in Pakistan strategy. “He’s out there on a limb.”


Times staff writers Peter Spiegel, Josh Meyer, Paul Richter and Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Laura King in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.