Upon taking office in January 2009, the next American president will face a bleak situation in Pakistan. After losing their Afghanistan sanctuary, most of al-Qaeda’s senior leaders relocated to Pakistan’s restive tribal areas. They now enjoy a safe haven there. Cross-border attacks into Afghanistan have escalated, and al-Qaeda’s supporters enjoy a strong presence in Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.
Over the next four years, Pakistan will likely be the most important country to the U.S. in its war against Sunni jihadist forces. Unfortunately, many of the problems that America will need to confront appear intractable at present. The next president will have to devise a coherent approach to Pakistan that includes intensive efforts to create more opportunities for America.
Al-Qaeda’s recovery in Pakistan was several years in the making. After the group’s leadership relocated to the federally administered tribal areas (FATA), they made an effort to entrench themselves in the country’s tribal structure. Eventually, they felt confident enough to try to assassinate Pakistan’s then-president Pervez Musharraf multiple times.
Though Pakistan’s military responded with a campaign to flush al-Qaeda out of the tribal areas, the military suffered so many losses that Musharraf eventually concluded that he had no option but to deal with his would-be killers. In March and September 2006, he consummated both halves of the Waziristan accords, peace agreements that essentially ceded Waziristan to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. As part of the accords, Pakistan’s military agreed that it would no longer carry out air or ground strikes in Waziristan, and that it would disband its human intelligence network. The accords even allowed non-Pakistani militants to continue to reside in Waziristan if they made an unenforceable promise to “keep the peace.”
The failure of these accords was predictable and almost immediate. Shortly after they were signed, a U.S. military official told the Associated Press that “American troops on Afghanistan’s eastern border have seen a threefold increase” in cross-border attacks from Pakistan.
The Accords March On
The fact that militants violated each of the conditions of the Waziristan accords did not stop the government from making further deals. In 2007, Musharraf reached agreements with Islamic militants in the regions of Swat, Bajaur, and Mohmand.
The negotiation process accelerated after a new parliamentary majority swept into power in February 2008, riding a wave of anti-American sentiment. While negotiations and peace deals with militants were already a part of Pakistan’s political landscape, the scale of negotiations ushered in by the new majority was unprecedented. Talks opened with virtually every militant outfit in the country, and the government entered into seven agreements encompassing nine districts.
It was easy to predict the failure of the Waziristan accords, in which the government received only unenforceable promises from extremists. There is no reason to believe that the new accords will yield a different result. Indeed, they are likely to increase the geographic areas where Pakistan’s extremist groups find refuge.
Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other affiliated groups derive great advantage from the accords in Pakistan, as well as the failure of Pakistan’s military to effectively police the country. The relative security that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership enjoys has enabled a significant recovery. American military and intelligence officials believe that more than 100 training camps are operational in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province and tribal areas, up from an estimated 29 camps last year in Waziristan.
The combination of al-Qaeda’s revamped leadership, new training camps, and the new geographic space in which the terror group can operate creates an elevated risk of terrorist attacks in the West. The 9/11 Commission Report warned that to carry out a catastrophic act of terror like 9/11, an organization requires “time, space, and the ability to perform competent planning,” as well as “a command structure able to make necessary decisions and possessing the authority and contacts to assemble needed people, money, and materials.” Al-Qaeda now enjoys all of these in Pakistan.
The challenges in Pakistan have also harmed coalition efforts in Afghanistan. The dramatic July 13 attack on a small base in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province—in which American troops were almost overrun by a heavily armed insurgent force of nearly 200—is now seen as symbolic of the growing difficulties of the Afghanistan war. Militant groups based in Pakistan have also been able to carry out a string of fresh attacks and bombings in other provinces along the Pakistan border. Thus, military strategists increasingly see Pakistan as the key to a successful Afghanistan campaign. A senior American military officer serving in Afghanistan recently stated, “If we don’t fix the FATA, we won’t win Afghanistan.”
Pitfalls to Action
Unfortunately, there are substantial barriers to an effective U.S. response. While current American military strategy in Pakistan consists of covert pinpoint strikes aimed at high-value terrorist targets, truly depriving al-Qaeda of its safe haven would likely require a sustained ground or air campaign.
As one senior American military intelligence officer stated, “We’re talking about a Serbia-style prolonged campaign.” NATO’s air campaign against Serbia’s military lasted from March 24 through June 11, 1999, and comprised over 38,000 missions involving approximately 1,000 aircraft and a barrage of Tomahawk missiles. A similar campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the officer said, would “heavily degrade” but not eliminate al-Qaeda. Such a campaign, however, would be highly destabilizing for Pakistan—something America cannot afford when dealing with a country possessing nuclear weapons.
According to one Pakistani diplomat, the effectiveness of U.S. strikes could be enhanced through the coordination of American airpower and Pakistani ground forces. “Coordinated military moves would break the backs of these guys,” he said.
But some members of the American intelligence community are more skeptical. As one official said, the Pakistani “military has about a third we can trust and about a third on the opposite side. If there’s a dirty unit, the militants will melt straight through it.”
There are also barriers to increasing American covert actions. Pakistan’s topography makes it difficult to insert and remove forces without being detected. Moreover, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) act in small teams and are lightly armed; they could be overwhelmed by larger contingents of heavily armed al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Blueprint for a New President
The dearth of military options may make the problems in Pakistan seem intractable. However, the next president can build our options there if he adopts three major strategic goals.
The next president will have to use direct and sustained diplomacy with Pakistan’s government. According to Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation, “We need a clear diplomatic message. Al-Qaeda is regenerated, and a number of recent terror plots are linked back to [Pakistan’s] tribal areas. Pakistan faces a choice not too different from what it faced on 9/11.”
In July 2008, a CIA deputy director reportedly took a secret trip to Islamabad to present senior Pakistani officials with information about the ties between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and extremists in the country’s tribal areas. According to the New York Times, this trip “seemed to be the bluntest American warning to Pakistan since shortly after the September 11 attacks about the ties between the spy service and Islamic militants.”
Diplomacy must not be loud and blustering; it needs to be direct yet also behind-the-scenes. One reason that Musharraf’s party was trounced in the February elections is that he was seen as an American puppet. Diplomatic pressure that is too overt may put Pakistani politicians in a position where they jeopardize their political future by doing the right thing.
Second, the U.S. needs to build up military options by developing a better understanding of Pakistan. A critical factor in Iraq’s turnaround during General David Petraeus’s tenure as the top U.S. commander has been our improved ability to align with tribal elements. The Anbar Awakening movement—a collection of Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi nationalists, ex-Baathists, and others united in the goal of driving al-Qaeda from their country—has been a vital ally in destroying the safe havens al-Qaeda once enjoyed in Iraq. We won’t quickly find an ally in Pakistan of the Awakening movement’s caliber, but we must begin to understand the intentions and capabilities of local actors. Indeed, the Pakistani tribes apparently differ in their approach to al-Qaeda, with the northern tribes more welcoming than the southern ones. Exploiting this should be a high priority.
Moreover, we need to better understand the patronage networks that al-Qaeda and the Taliban benefit from, and use this information to undermine them. The U.S. can support tribal groups that oppose al-Qaeda and the Taliban against rivals who favor them. We can work with Pakistani and other intelligence services to shut down the financial apparatus that backs al-Qaeda in Pakistan through Treasury actions, intelligence operations, or by arresting their operatives.
Third, the U.S. should work to undermine support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda within Pakistan’s ISI and military. It is no secret that extremist sympathizers exist within both institutions. This goal can be achieved through both covert operations and diplomacy. At the same time, the U.S. may be able to entice key actors in Pakistan to turn against al-Qaeda. For example, the U.S. could enhance the prestige of commanders and units within Pakistan’s military who willingly cooperate by earmarking military aid for specific regiments or commanders. Similarly, high-level U.S. military training could focus on units and commanders who have demonstrated their willingness to undertake military or policing efforts against extremist groups.
Whatever road we take in Pakistan will involve a substantial time commitment, and progress is likely to be slow. But it is vital to quickly develop a coherent Pakistan policy. The worst possible scenario would be for the next president to wait until tragedy has struck again.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and author of My Year Inside Radical Islam.