TCS Daily

What Can the U.S. Do About al Qaeda in Pakistan?

By Robert Haddick - March 13, 2007 12:00 AM

The U.S. intelligence community now believes that al Qaeda's top leadership has re-established a sanctuary, training bases, and command and control over its organization. The New York Times recently reported on the congressional testimony of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, America's top spy master:

"WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 — The new director of national intelligence told members of Congress on Tuesday that senior leaders of Al Qaeda were steadily rebuilding the network's bases inside Pakistan and that future attacks against the United States could be planned from Pakistan's remote western mountains.

"In his first testimony since taking office last month, Mike McConnell said Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were supervising the establishment of Qaeda camps in Pakistan similar to those that existed in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks, although he said the camps were not as fully developed as the former Afghan bases.

"Mr. McConnell's appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee followed a succession of meetings between top American officials and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who officials in Washington have said was not doing enough to root out Islamist militants in Pakistan's tribal areas.

"'It's something we're very worried about and very concerned about,' Mr. McConnell said."

After five and a half years of war on al Qaeda, perhaps the only effect has been to push the terror group's base of operation a hundred kilometers or so to the east. Early on in the war, Pakistan helped deliver up many of the leaders of the September 11, 2001 plot. But these leaders have undoubtedly been replaced by other al Qaeda members who now have recent practical experience operating in the post-9/11 world. For its part, Pakistan denies the U.S. intelligence community's conclusions, and now seems unwilling to take any meaningful action against the al Qaeda presence in Pakistan's Waziristan region.

What can the U.S. government do, if anything, about the al Qaeda sanctuary on Pakistan's northwest frontier?

Here are options U.S. policy-makers will consider, listed in descending order of aggressiveness:

1. Large-scale U.S. ground attack

Proponents of this option will argue that a massive helicopter-borne attack, launched from bases in Afghanistan and using several brigades of U.S. soldiers and Marines, could simultaneously assault dozens of known and suspected al Qaeda sites in Pakistan's remote Waziristan region. If the operation achieved tactical surprise, proponents will argue that the operation could wipe out al Qaeda's central leadership and uncover crucial intelligence about al Qaeda's global operations and plans.

However, such an operation would be extremely risky. The fact is that al Qaeda and Islamic radicalism have a large following in Pakistan. President Musharraf's hold on power is tenuous. A large-scale U.S. military assault on Pakistan risks stirring up a revolt against General Musharraf. With Pakistan's nuclear weapons stockpile up for grabs, the U.S. could face a much worse situation in Pakistan than it faces now.

In addition, it is very likely that the U.S. would be unable to achieve surprise with such an operation. The U.S. assault could come up dry, after al Qaeda's leaders have fled the area. The U.S. would then have a war with Pakistan with nothing to show for it.

2. Air strikes

The U.S. has occasionally struck sites in Pakistan, with limited effect. U.S. missile strikes have targeted Ayman al-Zawahiri, without success. U.S. missile strikes have killed a few lesser al Qaeda figures, but have not registered any permanent damage to the organization. Some air power advocates might argue for simultaneous strikes on a long list of known and suspected al Qaeda sites in Pakistan. Such a coordinated attack might be more successful now that al Qaeda has reconstituted its training facilities inside Pakistan.

Such an attack would likely produce disappointing results. Target intelligence inside Pakistan has been unreliable. Many non-combatant casualties would occur, resulting in a propaganda victory for the Islamists. And a large-scale air attack could destabilize the Musharraf regime; previous single-target attacks have resulted in rioting and protests inside Pakistan.

3. Small-scale U.S. raids

Another option is to employ U.S. special operations personnel inside Pakistan for reconnaissance, ambushes, and raids. Such operations may already be occurring regularly, perhaps since 2001. If so, they haven't prevented the creation of the al Qaeda sanctuary that so concerns Admiral McConnell.

If this option has not yet been employed, the question for U.S. policy-makers is how much special operations activity inside Pakistan will be required to achieve a decisive effect against al Qaeda? Can an effective level remain covert for long? If not, would the consequences of exposure be similar to the risks described in options 1 and 2? If that is the case, why not simply employ option 1?

4. Employ Afghan soldiers or militia as a proxy

In recent years, Afghanistan has suffered the most from the al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Afghanistan has an inherent right of self-defense; cross-border military activity should be a two-way street. The U.S. government could train, equip, and support Afghan army or militia forces on raids into Pakistan.

Afghan soldiers taking action to defend their country would likely receive more sympathetic treatment from the global media than a similar U.S. military assault would. Afghan raids into Pakistan would also stir up domestic trouble for Mr. Musharraf, but again less than would a U.S. attack on Pakistan. If these assumptions are true, an Afghan raiding campaign into Pakistan would be more politically sustainable, which would mean that the operation could persist over time, applying cumulative pressure on al Qaeda's sanctuary.

Unfortunately, the Afghan army or militias may lack the skills or motivation for such a campaign. Given security demands elsewhere in Afghanistan, the country may not be able to spare any troops for this effort. Sharp fighting between Afghan units and al Qaeda would occur straight away; it is very likely that U.S. forces would be required to come to the assistance of Afghan units in distress on the Pakistan side of the border. This option would quickly lead to U.S. boots on the ground inside Pakistan, with all of the consequences of that event.

5. Divide and conquer - support anti-al Qaeda factions inside Pakistan

In spite of al Qaeda's popularity in Pakistan's tribal areas, its presence in the area has certainly displaced some Pakistanis in the area from authority, or otherwise created some anger and bad feelings. Perhaps the U.S., with Pashtun Afghan assistance, could work with those Pakistanis in Waziristan who have lost out due to al Qaeda's presence in the area. Perhaps there is a possibility of supporting an anti-al Qaeda resistance faction inside Pakistan. Even if such a resistance faction could not force al Qaeda out of Pakistan, it would serve U.S. interests to merely be disruptive, to cause al Qaeda to be defensive and to waste time, money, and manpower on its own security rather than on offensive operations.

Such a strategy presupposes the existence of an anti-al Qaeda faction in Pakistan, an assumption which may be wholly false. And if such a faction exists, would elements of the U.S. government have the local and cultural knowledge necessary to exploit the situation? And would such a faction have the strength, organization, and leadership to be effective?

6. Convince President Musharraf to take action against al Qaeda in Pakistan

Even if President Musharraf wants to take action against the al Qaeda base in Pakistan, it is not clear that Pakistan's army or intelligence service possess any enthusiasm for such a mission. Perhaps knowing that an order to attack Waziristan will either be disobeyed or ineffectively carried out, President Musharraf, opting to avoid a confrontation with his subordinates, has decided not to bother.

If President Musharraf cannot rely on Pakistan's army or spy agency to help with the problem in Waziristan, perhaps President Musharraf can follow the practice of previous dictators and create a new armed organization that will loyally obey his orders. The U.S. government could fund and support this effort. The U.S. would hope that a new parallel Pakistani army could solve Pakistan's al Qaeda problem and also keep the Islamists from taking over the country and seizing control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal.

More conventionally, the U.S. government could apply pressure on Pakistan by withdrawing the long list of aid and privileges it granted after 2001. Even if this did nothing to get the Pakistani army out of the barracks and into Waziristan, America would have the satisfaction of knowing that it is no longer subsidizing a government in a de facto alliance with al Qaeda. And if the Pakistan government chose to regard the U.S. increasingly as an opponent, such a stance would make it easier for the U.S. to become more aggressive with both Pakistan and the al Qaeda sanctuaries on its territory. It would also reinforce the importance of the growing diplomatic and military relationship between the U.S. and India.

7. Do nothing about the al Qaeda sanctuaries and rely on U.S. border security

If the issue is the threat to the U.S. homeland from an al Qaeda base in Pakistan, al Qaeda personnel must physically travel to U.S. territory before they can attack the U.S. homeland. One such path is the Pakistani connection with Britain, from where al Qaeda men might be able to fly to the U.S.

Passport controls, terrorist watch lists, no-fly lists, etc. are supposed to prevent this type of infiltration. But these techniques are only as good as the databases that support them.

Existing U.S. border control measures seem to have prevented another al Qaeda terror attack on U.S. soil. But that is not proof that the current measures are adequate, especially if al Qaeda is free to plan new operations from an untouched sanctuary in Pakistan.

If the U.S. chose to play only defense, there are several actions it could take to reduce the chance of al Qaeda infiltration. It could:

1. Speed up planned improvements to Mexican and Canadian border security.

2. Shut down travel from Pakistan to the U.S.

3. End the Visa Waiver program, whereby travelers from many European countries are excluded from having to obtain a visa to visit the U.S.

4. Sharply restrict the issuance of visas to visitors from Islamic countries.

5. Sharply reduce the issuance of foreign student visas.

6. Make the necessary investment in shipping container security.

These measures are controversial because they harm domestic interests that currently benefit from foreign tourists, foreign students, and cheap shipping.

Will it take another al Qaeda strike on the U.S. to prompt action against al Qaeda's new base in Pakistan? I hope not. I believe that the U.S. government could begin withdrawing benefits to Pakistan, support Afghan raids into Pakistan, tighten its own border security, and occasionally strike a high-value target inside Pakistan with little risk of making the situation worse. These actions won't eliminate the al Qaeda sanctuary in Pakistan. But they could put al Qaeda on the defensive, reducing its effectiveness at offensive operations. The harsher and higher risk measures would remain in reserve if needed.

In the end, the Pakistani people will have to take responsibility for what happens on their territory. If they don't, they will eventually be held responsible. If al Qaeda has its way in Pakistan and then later in London, India, Europe, the U.S. and beyond, the people of Pakistan will end up paying the highest price.

The author was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry company commander and staff officer. He was the global research director for a large private investment firm and is now a private investor. His blog is Westhawk. He is a TCS contributing writer.



read your Machiavelli, it has the cure.
Machiavelli stated that "if a certain situation is keeping you from waging war, eleminate that certain something ASAP or it will come back to haunt and perhaps destroy you."

In thiscase the ONEthing that keeps us from dealing with Pakistan and wiziristan correctly is the Pakistani nukes.

The USA's biggest intelligence push should be to locate every single nuclear weapon the Pakis have, then destroy or capture them.

After that, who gives a #&#& what the Paki ISS scum do or think?

any other course of action is a fools errand and doomed to fail.

You left out at least one option!
Special Forces are not only direct action troops who go into battle in twelve man teams. The basic mission for Special Forces has been to train indigenous forces to do battle. This solves at least one problem, we do not look like them. We sort of stand out. We are taller, whiter and blonder.

To use indigenous forces, be they willing Afghans or willing Pakistanis, there is a need to establish that they have some gripe about Al Quaeda and the Taliban. They can be trained to a high degree of capability and confidence.

Not an easy task. But Special Forces are up to it, as long as we Americans can keep a semblance of security about the mission and the Military commands in the area can keep their mouths shut and wait for the results!

Allan J. Fritz
COL, USA (Ret.)

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