As Taliban militants push deeper into Pakistan’s settled areas, foreign operatives of Al Qaeda who had focused on plotting attacks against the West are seizing on the turmoil to sow chaos in Pakistan and strengthen the hand of the militant Islamist groups there, according to American and Pakistani intelligence officials.
One indication came April 19, when a truck parked inside a Qaeda compound in South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, erupted in a fireball when it was struck by a C.I.A. missile. American intelligence officials say that the truck had been loaded with high explosives, apparently to be used as a bomb, and that while its ultimate target remains unclear, the bomb would have been more devastating than the suicide bombing that killed more than 50 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September.
Al Qaeda’s leaders — a predominantly Arab group of Egyptians, Saudis and Yemenis, as well as other nationalities like Uzbeks — for years have nurtured ties to Pakistani militant groups like the Taliban operating in the mountains of Pakistan. The foreign operatives have historically set their sights on targets loftier than those selected by the local militant groups, aiming for spectacular attacks against the West, but they may see new opportunity in the recent violence.
Intelligence officials say the Taliban advances in Swat and Buner, which are closer to Islamabad than to the tribal areas, have already helped Al Qaeda in its recruiting efforts. The officials say the group’s recruiting campaign is currently aimed at young fighters across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are less inclined to plan and carry out far-reaching global attacks and who have focused their energies on more immediate targets.
“They smell blood, and they are intoxicated by the idea of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former analyst for the C.I.A. who recently led the Obama administration’s policy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It remains unlikely that Islamic militants could seize power in Pakistan, given the strength of Pakistan’s military, according to American intelligence analysts. But a senior American intelligence official expressed concern that recent successes by the Taliban in extending territorial gains could foreshadow the creation of “mini-Afghanistans” around Pakistan that would allow militants even more freedom to plot attacks.
American government officials and terrorism experts said that Al Qaeda’s increasing focus on a local strategy was partly born from necessity, as the C.I.A.’s intensifying airstrikes have reduced the group’s ability to hit targets in the West. The United States has conducted 17 drone attacks so far this year, including one on Saturday, according to American officials and Pakistani news accounts, compared with 36 strikes in all of 2008.
According to a Pakistani intelligence assessment provided to The New York Times in February, Al Qaeda has adapted to the deaths of its leaders by shifting “to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups” within Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the same time, the group has intensified its recruiting, to replace its airstrike casualties.
One of Al Qaeda’s main goals in Pakistan, the assessment said, was to “stage major terrorist attacks to create a feeling of insecurity, embarrass the government and retard economic development and political progress.”
The Qaeda operatives are foreigners inside Pakistan, and experts say that the group’s leaders, like Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, appear to be wary of claiming credit for the violence in the country, possibly creating popular backlash against the group.
“They are trying to take an Arab face off this,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
“If you look at Al Qaeda as a brand, they know when to broadcast the brand, as the group has done in North Africa,” Mr. Hoffman said. “And they know when to cloak the brand, as it has done in Pakistan.”
As a result, it is difficult for American officials to assess exactly which recent attacks in Pakistan are the work of Qaeda operatives. But intelligence officials say they believe that the Marriott Hotel bombing was partly planned by Usama al-Kini, a Kenyan Qaeda operative who was killed in Pakistan by a C.I.A. drone on New Year’s Day.
According to Mr. Hoffman, Al Qaeda may be trying to achieve a separate goal: getting the C.I.A. to call off its campaign of airstrikes in the tribal areas. A wave of terrorist violence could foment so much popular discontent with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, he said, that Pakistan might then try to pressure the Obama administration to scale back its drone campaign.
For now, however, Obama administration officials say they believe that the covert airstrikes are the best tool at their disposal to strike at Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, which remains the group’s most important haven, but where large numbers of American combat forces would never be welcome.
The April 19 strike that hit what appeared to have been a truck bomb in a compound used by Al Qaeda set off an enormous secondary explosion, intelligence officials say. A second, empty truck destroyed in the same attack may also have been there to be outfitted with explosives, they say.
In another significant attack, on April 29, missiles fired from a C.I.A. Predator killed Abu Sulayman al-Jazairi, an Algerian Qaeda planner who American intelligence officials say they believe helped train operatives for attacks in Europe and the United States.
Still, officials caution that Al Qaeda has not abandoned its goal of “spectacular” attacks in the United States and Europe. According to one American counterterrorism official, the group continues to plan attacks outside its sanctuary in the tribal areas, aiming at targets in the West and elsewhere in Pakistan.
“They are opportunistic to the extent they perceive vulnerabilities with the uncertain nature of Pakistani politics and the security situation in Swat and Buner,” said the American counterterrorism official, who like other officials interviewed for this article was not authorized to speak publicly on intelligence issues. “They’re trying to exploit it.”
In meetings this past week in Washington, American and Pakistani officials discussed the possibility of limited joint operations with American Predator and Reaper drones.
Under one proposal, the United States would retain control over the firing of missiles, but it would share with the Pakistani security forces some sophisticated imagery and communications intercepts that could be relayed to Pakistani combat forces on the ground.
C.I.A. officials for months have resisted requests by Mr. Zardari to share the drone technology. In a television interview broadcast Sunday, the Pakistani leader said he would keep pressing to get his own Predator fleet.
“I’ve been asking for them, but I haven’t got a positive answer as yet,” Mr. Zardari said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“But I’m not giving up.”
Pakistan: How Did We Get Here?
In recent weeks, the danger that the Taliban pose to regional and global security in Pakistan has been discussed at great length, both by intellectuals and policy makers. This greater interest has mirrored the greater threat that the Taliban have been presumed to pose as they have grown stronger and made dramatic inroads into the "settled" areas of Pakistan. To truly understand this threat, however, we have to step back and ask a few basic questions: how did we get here? How have the Taliban been so successful in their seemingly relentless push for greater control of Pakistan? And what is required for the Pakistani state to defeat them?
There have been three basic components of the growing Taliban problem: political, military, and geopolitical.
The political problem has centered on a lack of willingness of Pakistan's political elite, as well as wide swathes of the public, to clearly and unequivocally identify the Taliban as a force to be opposed. There are a number of reasons for that. First, the rampant anti-Americanism that runs through the country has made it easy for the Taliban to be conceived of as the lesser of two evils -- the enemy of my enemy, if you will.
Second, given the failure of Pakistan's traditional governing structures -- the military on the one hand and feudal and business-oriented politicians on the other -- to actually deal with the problems of the average Pakistani, there has been a growing sympathy to the idea of "Islamic democracy," whereby the state is run on religious principles, if not religious laws (or Sharia) per se. By this logic, only the methods, and not the goals, of the Taliban are inherently problematic.
Third, the Taliban are often looked upon as the "second-movers" in this war, whereby they merely responded to the aggression showed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and former President Musharraf in Waziristan who, in turn, was accused of fighting the Taliban merely for America's benefit. Notwithstanding the empirically questionable nature of each of these claims, they create the appearance of a firm foundation for the Taliban's cause.
The military problem is rooted in the fact that Pakistan's armed forces are not terribly well-equipped to fight wars, especially counter-insurgency wars against a primarily Pashtun enemy. Pakistan's military has lost every war it has launched. More to the point, the military is not trained to fight counterinsurgency wars on its own soil. It is trained to fight the Indian military across the plains of Punjab. Finally, given the Pashtuns are the second-largest contingent in terms of ethnicity in the Pakistan military -- their membership in the military easily outpaces their share of the population, primarily due to British colonialists designating them a "martial" race -- the questions of morale and willingness amongst the troops are serious ones, keeping in mind that the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun movement.
Finally, the geopolitical problem stems from Pakistan's relationship with two actors of central importance: the U.S. and India. With regard to the U.S., the Pakistani military functions on the assumption that the Americans will leave the region, will do so inevitably, and will do so soon. This assumption is born out of the partnership in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan, when at the conclusion of the conflict, the U.S. left Pakistan to deal with the fallout of an effectively open border with Afghanistan, and legions of angry, unemployed, well-trained, and well-armed people who believed they were fighting Allah's war against godlessness. The military understands that American interests in the region are, at best, temporary.
What this expectation of an American exit does is ensure that the entire military establishment in Pakistan may not wholeheartedly be behind the conflict against all elements of the Taliban, even if orders from the top argue against such a position. Why fight the Taliban today when they could come in handy tomorrow, once the Americans have left? This line of thinking is exacerbated by the perception of encirclement driven by India's close relationship to the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan, and the growing strategic partnership between the two.
Finally, America's actions themselves -- whether the drone attacks brought upon by the Bush-Mush partnership, and expanded considerably by the Obama-Zardari pairing, or the promise of an even greater ground force by Obama in neighboring Afghanistan -- are effectively pushing the Taliban east, closer and closer to the heart of Pakistan.
These factors in conjunction have meant that the Taliban, far from being on the run, are spreading their tentacles further and further into the settled areas of Pakistan. Having moved in to Swat at the end of last year after a "peace deal" with the government -- it was little more than an abject surrender by the state -- the Taliban recently spread into Buner and threatened the neighboring district of Shangla, both important districts within one hundred miles of Islamabad, the federal capital. They have made inroads in Punjab, the country's most populous and politically important province. And they are treading water in Karachi, the country's business, commercial, and financial hub, its port city, and its most multi-ethnic city, where a substantial Pashtun population resides.
What do such developments mean for average Pakistanis and their prospects? First, they mean that local customs and leadership will be done away with -- and the phrase about leadership being done away with is to be taken literally.
Second, business and "usual" economic activity grinds to a halt; the only template we have, that of Afghanistan in the 1990s, does not hold a great deal of promise on this front.
Third, women can expect to be subjected to even greater violations of basic human rights than they currently are deprived of in Pakistan.
Fourth, all social and cultural freedoms -- such as those of speech, art, religion -- will be a thing of the past.
It is important to note that these are not idle threats; they are, to the contrary, based upon the facts of the Taliban's stated worldview, and their past behavior. The infamous video of a teenage girl being beaten in public by the Taliban, for a crime only a member of the Taliban could explain, circulated a lot on the internet, but that is the mere tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, such assessments are generally reached only when the Taliban actually move into one's neighborhood. Until the manifestation of a direct threat, it seems, Pakistanis have been largely content to look the other way.
Until now. In response to the Taliban's growing control and influence in the country, there are small but substantive encouraging signs that Pakistan and its public may finally be waking up to the threat. Coverage in the local media has been almost exclusively focused on the Taliban's bold ventures into Pakistan's territory lately, and their challenge to the writ of the state.
Important figures, such as Fazlur Rehman (the leader of JUI-F, a religious party with a historical foothold in the areas currently being overrun by the Taliban) and Nawaz Sharif (the country's most popular politician, a center-right figure who has hitherto shown little inclination to speak against the Taliban) have begun to publicly speak of the dangers that Pakistan faces. Both the head of the military and the Prime Minister have warned that the Taliban will not be allowed to indefinitely challenge the state.
More importantly -- and this is just a hunch, which will remain unconfirmed thanks to the absence of a Pakistani Nate Silver -- the tide of public opinion may finally be turning, from equivocation to outrage. The first salvo in the public relations battle may well have been the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in early March. Cricket was and is the one thing that unites this deeply divided country, and the Sri Lankans were the only international team that braved to tour the country amidst the specter of security threats. Their targeting was an affront to all Pakistanis. The infamous girl-being-flogged video followed soon after, which were in turn followed by greater Taliban incisions in Pakistani territory. And this goes with mentioning the as-yet unyielding campaign of violence against civilians and security forces. Given these events in the last eight weeks, it would not be surprising to find people more cognizant of the Taliban threat.
Despite these purported changes, however, the military -- as always in Pakistan -- holds the key. Even though the leadership of the military has been unequivocal about the direction of security policy in the country, the message appears to have not seeped down to all involved. This must change, and the coddling of Taliban elements for geostrategic reasons must be abandoned.
India ceased to be a threat to Pakistan on May 28, 1998. Even if India is friendly with Afghanistan, and even if Pakistan's military establishment perceives encirclement, care must be taken to evaluate the real threat, or lack thereof, that India poses to Pakistan's existential security. This is not 1914, and Pakistan is not Germany. Simply put, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal guarantees that India cannot overrun Pakistan, with or without an alliance with Afghanistan. The nuclear guarantee, unfortunately, does not extend to the prospect of the Taliban overrunning Pakistan.
Of course, this still ignores the very real possibility that even if Pakistan's military is willing to tackle the Taliban, it will not be able to. And this is the scariest possibility of all. Consider, for instance, this editorial from the Daily Times, a paper that, in keeping with its liberal bent, has long argued for greater action against the Taliban:
Finally, it is the army that has to step forward and face the Taliban. It has baulked so far because of adverse public opinion spurred by Pakistan's conservative media. But now that the politicians are waking up to the danger and the media is increasingly disabused, the army must end its India-driven strategy and try to save Pakistan from becoming the caliphate of Al Qaeda.
Such a position assumes that public opinion and the vacillating political leadership is holding the military back, which is true. But it elides the possibility that the military simply cannot do the job. Observers of the region will recall that from 2004 to 2006, the military under Musharraf went into Waziristan and came out with its tail between its legs. What makes us so sure that Swat, Malakand, and -- if it comes to it -- Punjab will be so different?
At the signing of the declaration of American independence, Benjamin Franklin told the attendees that "We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately." That advice, if heeded, would prove infinitely more valuable to Pakistan's cause than any number of cash notes bearing Franklin's likeness.
Pakistanis of all stripes -- from the media to the public, the political leadership to the military -- must unite in the face of this threat. It is time for action, not words. It is clear that concessions and negotiations do not work with the Taliban. They are not reliable partners, and they have made a living on reneging on every single agreement they have made with the government (whether it be Musharraf's or Zardari's).
Fortunately, they may just have overplayed their hand in recent weeks, and done the hard job of uniting Pakistanis for us. Indeed, both the government and the military have shown a greater resolve in the last two weeks than at any time in the recent past. The military, for instance, has launched an aggressive operation in Buner in response to the Taliban's advances, which has impelled the Taliban to threaten to withdraw from its so-called peace treaty with the government. The threat is laughable, because the Taliban already abused the terms of its deal when it expanded its control beyond Swat. Be that as it may, the operation in Buner is the right move. But turning back the Taliban's recent gains must only be the beginning of this new stage in this war. Pakistan's future depends on it.