The latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the collective product of 16 US intelligence agencies concerning national security issues, was released July 17.
(President Bush had received it on his desk in June.) Its general content, made public on July 12, included the conclusion that al-Qaeda has regained the same strength it had as of the 9-11 attacks. According to the report, this strength derives from the “safe haven” it has enjoyed in parts of Pakistan and its association with “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” which has allowed it to “energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives . . .”
It seems to me the report’s conclusions are generally valid. But they need to be set in historical context. Before 9-11 some prominent Americans enjoyed a cordial relationship with the Taliban. Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad (who later became ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and now the United Nations) had engaged in talks with Taliban officials in Texas in December 1997, when he was a Unocal oil executive negotiating for oil pipeline construction rights in Afghanistan. After that he wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post arguing that, “The Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran. We should . . . be willing to offer recognition and humanitarian assistance and to promote international economic reconstruction. It is time for the United States to reengage” the Afghan regime. In 2001 Secretary of State Colin Powell negotiated an arrangement with the Taliban to eradicate opium production with US assistance. The program succeeded very well, and in May 2001 Powell announced a $43 million grant to Afghanistan to help the country recover from a long drought.
After 9-11 that cordiality evaporated. Bush, declaring “You’re either for us, or against us,” and “We make no distinction between terrorists and regimes that protect them,” bombed the Taliban out of power. He might have done better to distinguish between a Pushtun movement with a certain (very backward) popular base on the one hand, and an international Islamist terrorist movement enjoying Pushtun hospitality (in appreciation for its leader Osama bin Laden’s role in supporting the anti-Soviet Mujahadeen in the 1980s) on the other. Instead he toppled the Taliban in short order, succeeding in a secondary objective, while failing to destroy al-Qaeda or capture its leader “dead or alive.” Bush made a great show of bombing al-Qaeda camps and killing an unknown number of al-Qaeda members. But hundreds (bin Laden among them) fled into Pakistan where they, and fleeing members of the far more numerous Taliban, have found more hospitality among the Pushtuns — the “safe haven” referred to in the NIE report.
Bush might have continued the effort to corner and capture the al-Qaeda leadership with vigor, in cooperation with Pakistani forces. It would have been a difficult since, as Eric Margolis recently wrote in an excellent column, the Pushtuns only “reluctantly joined newly-created Pakistan in 1947 under express constitutional guarantee of total autonomy and a ban on Pakistani troops ever entering there.” (The current deployment of such troops in North and South Waziristan is opposed by the people in part because it is a violation of this guarantee. This is rarely noted in the corporate press.)
In any case Bush confronting that thorny problem soon changed the subject to Iraq. In his “Axis of Evil” speech in January 2002, he all but announced that Iraq was next on the regime-change agenda. He implied that Afghanistan was a done deal — al-Qaeda trapped in caves or on the run. “We haven’t heard from [bin Laden] in a long time,” he told reporters at the White House in March 2002 (“long” meaning a few months). “I truly am not that concerned about him.” No, Bush was concerned about invading another country — this one with one-quarter of the world’s oil reserves. He may not have suspected that this would generate an al-Qaeda center where there had been none before. (It bears repeating again and again that there was no significant al-Qaeda presence in Iraq under Saddam, and that the Islamist terrorists despised the Iraqi Baathist regime for its secularism.)
So yes, as the NIE asserts, al-Qaeda is resurgent. But how do the neocons deal with that fact? By advocating an attack on Pakistan! Pakistan, under their protégé President Pervez Musharraf, who is risking his neck everyday by his cooperation with the US!
Recall that Musharraf, who came to power in an anti-democratic coup in 1999, has stated that after 9-11 US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told his intelligence director: “Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age” if Islamabad didn’t cooperate with the US “War on Terror.” Cooperation meant severing ties with the Taliban, which Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence had helped create — to bring stability to the neighboring country wracked by warlord violence — and with which the US had developed the working relationship described above. It meant full cooperation with the US military as it prepared to attack Afghanistan, and suppression of demonstrations in Pakistan against US moves. Musharraf acceded to these demands, receiving in return an end to the US sanctions imposed on his country after its nuclear weapons tests, much new military and economic aid, and accolades from Washington as a true ally in the terror war. He’s been playing a difficult game ever since, trying to satisfy Washington while coping with the domestic political backlash. There is a lot of support in Pakistan for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and a lot of disgust with US foreign policy. In the military itself, pro-Taliban sentiment is said to remain widespread.
In this context, some neocons have recently advocated an attack on al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan. There is truly no end to their madness. Here is a brief chronology of their campaign:
On July 12, on Fox News’ Fox & Friends broadcast, regular commentator Bill Kristol was asked if the NIE had “come out on purpose so that we will have the right . . . to go after Pakistan now?”
“I think the president’s going to have to take military action there over the next few weeks or months,” Kristol replied. “Bush has to disrupt that sanctuary. I think, frankly, we won’t even tell Musharraf. We’ll do what we have to do in Western Pakistan and Musharraf can say, ‘Hey, they didn’t tell me.’”
Since Kristol edits the warmongering Weekly Standard and typically reflects the views of Cheney’s neocon clique, this is an important statement.
July 17: The NIE is released. The two-page unclassified version notes that al-Qaeda has largely rebuilt itself, leading to a “heightened threat environment” for the US
Bush seems to contradict the report, telling reporters, “Al-Qaeda is strong today, but they’re not nearly as strong as they were prior to September the 11th, 2001.”
July 19: Presidential spokesman Tony Snow answering reporters’ questions refuses to rule out striking at targets inside Pakistan, declines to comment on whether US forces would first seek permission from Pakistan. He says, “We never rule out any options, including striking actionable targets. . . . Those are matters that are best not discussed publicly.” He also indicates that Musharraf is “going to have to be more aggressive” in going after al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
July 20: Pakistan’s Foreign Office calls US officials’ comments about striking targets along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border “irresponsible and dangerous,” calls for “prudence and patience” in dealing with the terrorism issue. “We cannot, nor should we be expect to take indiscriminate action over a large territory without any precise information about any Al Qaeda or terrorist hideout,” states Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam.
July 21: Bush says in his weekly radio address that he’s troubled by the report that al-Qaeda was gaining strength in the Pakistani tribal region.
July 22: Frances Fragos Townsend, Bush’s homeland security adviser, tells CNN that if the US has “actionable targets, anywhere in the world, including Pakistan, then we would respond to those targets. . . . There are no options off the table.” (Interesting that the homeland security advisor should be discussing military action abroad.)
On the same day an angry Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri tells CNN: “Some people are talking irresponsibly of attack in the tribal areas by the United States. People in Pakistan get very upset when, despite all the sacrifices that Pakistan has been making, you have the sort of questions that are sometimes asked by the American media. . . [But] indiscriminate attacks could only undercut efforts to win harts and minds.”
Townsend, asked to comment, declares: “I understand their anger. They’ve taken hundreds of casualties.” But “our Number One is protecting the American people,” and “. . .we use all our instruments of national power to be effective.”
July 23: While the Pakistani military announces its forces in North Waziristan have killed 35 militants, Foreign Minister Aslam again responds to recent US threats. “We do not want our efforts to be undermined by any ill-conceived action,” she says, adding that any US strikes would produce “deep resentment” in Pakistan.
July 25: Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Peter Verga tells an unusual joint session of the House Armed Services Committee and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “If there were information or opportunity to strike a blow” on Pakistani territory “to protect the American people” US forces would act immediately.
On the same day at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, State Department Undersecretary for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns says, “Given the primacy of the fight against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, if we have in the future certainty of knowledge, then of course the United States would always have the option of taking action on its own.”
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Isn’t it apparent that public opinion is being prepared for some sort of military operation in Pakistan, in a region already seething with resentment at Musharraf’s government and hostile to the US?
Bush is in a difficult spot. Even though he may contradict it, the NIE lends fuel to his critics’ argument that he has diverted resources from the real “War on Terror” to the unrelated battlefield of Iraq and thereby allowed al-Qaeda to regroup. The Taliban is resurgent in southern Afghanistan and has now developed a Pakistani wing. Musharraf may be alarmed by this, and by the spread of Islamist militancy in Pakistan in general; hence his July 3 assault on the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Islamabad. (The timing of that was interesting, since the mosque and Musharraf’s government had been at odds since January.) But support for the Taliban in the “tribal areas” appears intractable.
As Margolis points out, today’s Afghanistan-Pakistan border was drawn by British colonial authorities, and runs through Pushtun territory. It is the ideal hideout for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But efforts to bring it under firm central control — something the Pakistani state has never done or even felt necessary to do, leaving the region in the hands of tribal leaders — have proved disastrous for the Pakistani army. That’s why in September 2006 the government signed a pact with tribal groups, including the “Islamic Emirate of Waziristan” whereby the latter would prevent cross-border movement of militants into and out of Afghanistan in exchange for the government’s cessation of air and ground attacks against militants in Waziristan. This met with some concern in Washington, and Voice of America announced that the pact had Mullah Omar’s blessing, but Bush spokesman Tony Snow at the time said that the agreement was aimed at combating terrorism and that Islamabad had assured the US the accord wouldn’t undermine the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The attack on the Red Mosque earlier this month produced reprisals on government forces in Waziristan and the collapse of the Waziristan Accord, which was already under attack in Washington. The flow of militants back and forth is now probably smoother than ever, while pressure from the US on Musharraf to act is intensifying. He’s in effect being told, “Take firmer actions to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaeda presence in the border area, or we will launch missile strikes — to protect our people.”
“People in Pakistan get very upset” at such talk, responds the Pakistani Foreign Minister. Actually, people everywhere get upset by the Bush administration’s talk of bombing Iran, and Syria, and now even close ally Pakistan. But let’s suppose the talk turns to action and there is some sort of major attack, successful or unsuccessful, against targets in Pakistan. (Small deniable ones have occurred already.) Where would that leave Musharraf, already reeling from the political setbacks and engaged in a high-stakes bid to change the law so he can run for president for another term as military chief? Embarrassed, surely. Vilified as a puppet or weakling unable to stand up to the US, probably. Maybe overthrown or dead. Is that what Kristol and the other neocons want?
“I think the president’s going to have to take military action there over the next few weeks or months,” says Kristol. “Bush has to disrupt that sanctuary.” Norman Podhoretz predicts that Bush will “within the next 21 months. . . order air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities from the three US aircraft carriers already sitting nearby. . .” While the nation recoils from the carnage inflicted by this sick administration to date, these warmongers urge more madness. And the mainstream media affords them a pulpit and the time of day.
Everything they touch turns to chaos. They say in your face, “The military situation is better than anyone expected . . .” (Kristol, Fox News, July 12) but they’re celebrating cruelly inflicted “creative chaos.” They’ve produced bedlam in Afghanistan. The brutal rule of the Taliban gave way to the rule of brutal warlords and a feeble central government incapable of suppressing the forces of former CIA favorite Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, preventing the resurgence of opium production, or stanching the Taliban’s reemergence. The US-led de facto occupation of Afghanistan has destabilized Pakistan. Meanwhile Iraq bleeds worse than it ever has while Kristol tells Fox News, “The military situation is better than anyone expected. . . . If Bush can just hang on there and beat back the people in Congress who want to snatch defeat out of the jaws of possible success . . . I think we’re going to win this war.” Palestine is broken in two thanks to Elliott Abram’s savage assault on Palestinian democracy. Somalia seethes under a regime imposed by the US using Ethiopian proxies; refugees pour out of Mogadishu. They talk about “democracy” but they really sow disorder — and hatred for the US.
The Pakistanis are right to be upset. We should all be upset. The American people should be horrified at the neocon policies that inevitably produce hatred in rational human victims regardless of their religious or political ideology. We don’t need that. To the demands for no attacks on Iran and Syria we must now add: “No attack on Pakistan!”