ThreatsWatch.Org: PrincipalAnalysis

American Power Play In Pakistan

al-Qaeda Abandons Camps After US Intelligence Shared with Pakistan

By Steve Schippert

In Washington, the topic of Pakistan has come to the fore in all of the major institutional spheres that impact, influence and execute warfighting and foreign policy. Within the military and intelligence communities as well as the political arena, the long-deferred issue has bubbled to the surface; What actions should be taken to combat the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance shored up and thriving within the tribal areas throughout the western swath of Pakistan?

The driving factor heightening concern is the increasing instability and deteriorating nature of Musharraf's rule, challenged on both sides by violent Islamists and the largely secular pro-democracy opposition alike. Central to growing fears is the uncertain stewardship and control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal in a post-Musharraf Pakistan, be the American ally removed by assassination, coup, insurgency or electoral defeat.

Sharing Intelligence Often Nets An Alerted Enemy

Adding fuel to the fires of concern, Syed Saleem Shahzad reported in his latest from the region, 'Taliban a step ahead of US assault', that the United States supplied Musharraf's government with detailed and specific intelligence on 29 al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist training camps operating in the provinces of North Waziristan and South Waziristan. Not long after that transfer of intelligence, all but one of the terror camps went cold. They were abandoned completely “or are being operated by skeleton crews," according to a senior US military intelligence official who spoke to The Fourth Rail.

The remaining camp not abandoned, run by Mullah Abdul Khaliq, was described by the official as “only churning out Taliban, not al Qaeda.” This is a reference to distinguish the difference between training rendered at al-Qaeda terrorist camps and those established for the purposes of quickly supplying conscripts as front-line Taliban cannon fodder, primarily for cross-border attacks into Afghanistan which endure extremely high casualty rates.

Not only have the al-Qaeda terrorist training camps been abandoned, but as Shahzad reports, top local Pashtun Taliban commanders have disappeared and melted away, and “the top echelons of the Arab community [read: al-Qaeda's Arab core] that was holed up in North Waziristan has also gone.”

No Chain of Custody on Shared Intelligence

When intelligence is shared with another actor, it is driven by varying degrees of trust and necessity. Unlike evidence procedure in a criminal case, there is no 'chain of custody' for intelligence information once it is shared beyond the originating agency's control. This is especially evident in the sharing between US Intelligence agencies and Musharraf's Pakistani government and military, both in a general sense and especially in the matter of the information on the al-Qaeda camps in the Waziristan provinces.

It should be noted that the distrust factor is not necessarily between American intelligence services and the secular Musharraf, personally. Rather, the genesis of mistrust arises from Islamist elements within Pakistani military and intelligence ranks. For this reason, there is always a level of apprehension among the American intelligence community regarding Pakistani counterparts. After all, it was Pakistan's military intelligence, the ISI, that fostered the Taliban and still has elements very sympathetic to al-Qaeda and its Islamist global aims. Even the alliance itself between Pakistan and the United States that arose following the attacks of September 11, 2001, is one more of necessity than of keen friendship.

Musharraf faced an American fury leading up to the invasion of Afghanistan in which the encroaching military juggernaut may not have cared to distinguish much between Afghan or Pakistani Pashtun hosts to bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorists. His decision to ally with the Americans was one of necessity. As Reuel Marc Gerecht aptly describes, since Musharraf's necessary alignment with the US post-9/11, "Washington has resumed aid to Islamabad, with the result that Pakistan's counterterrorist and anti-Taliban efforts have been executed with diminishing enthusiasm." So too, in this instance, the intelligence sharing was driven far more by necessity than by the questionable degree of trust between the two allies.

Once intelligence is shared with Pakistan it must be presumed distributed in whole or in part to the enemy. To presume US intelligence professionals operate with this clearly in mind would be a well-placed bet, to say the least.

Why Share Intelligence If Pakistani Elements Inform al-Qaeda?

Most Americans likely wonder why we would share sensitive intelligence with Pakistan regarding al-Qaeda if it so clearly gets shared with al-Qaeda by Islamist elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence. After all, it is far from coincidence that 28 of the 29 al-Qaeda camps were vacated after the specific and detailed intelligence on them was shared.

The short answer is that the intelligence is not quite as sensitive as it would appear. Al-Qaeda knows that their camp locations are not a secret to the Musharraf government, as do we. Further, they know that significant new building construction shows up clearly on US satellite and UAV aerial photo and video reconnaissance imagery.

The Pakistani intelligence and military have known precisely where such facilities are located. It is suspected that significant elements of the Pakistani military intelligence (ISI) continue to directly support both groups in their operations, to say nothing of the Islamist terror groups linked directly to al-Qaeda, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, who have openly received support from the ISI for operations in the disputed Jammu & Kashmir regions. That Pakistani intelligence – historical 'godfather' to the Taliban - would somehow know less about al-Qaeda and Taliban operations and camps within its own territory than US forces is a wholly untenable argument. It is, however, an argument put forth regularly by Pakistani leadership.

So then the natural question, why share what Pakistan knows?

One of Musharraf's regular public defenses in response to American criticism over perceived inaction against al-Qaeda and its established and operational havens within Pakistani territory has specifically been that the United States has not provided actionable intelligence. How can we attack them, Musharraf's defense would assert, if we don't know where they are? But this defense is public folly, and all sides know it, as demonstrated in the logic above.

The sharing of this intelligence on al-Qaeda terrorist training camps with Pakistan should be seen as an attempt to remove the 'no actionable intelligence' leg from the table of inaction. It was almost certainly shared knowing full well that the information – and the intended actions against al-Qaeda camps it sought to drive - would eventually find its way to the Islamists in North and South Waziristan. The level of sympathetic elements within Pakistani intelligence almost certainly assures this. And thus, the intelligence community is likely unsurprised that “neither the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led coalition in Afghanistan nor Pakistan intelligence has detected any movement in the camps” since the data was delivered.

Driving The Endgame

The sharing of this intelligence preceded last week's grand jirga in Kabul. Shahzad's Asia Times article reported that the shared intelligence “was to be followed up with military strikes at militant bases in Pakistan, either by the Pakistani armed forces in conjunction with the United States, or even by US forces alone.” With the camps not unexpectedly emptied, attacks now would be largely fruitless. The targets are not simply the brick, mud and mortar of structures, but rather the human capital of al-Qaeda's global terrorist headquarters. In the end, it is the terrorists in western Pakistan that must be confronted, killed and decisively defeated, not simply their infrastructure.

On the final day of the four-day talks among political and tribal leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf addressed the Kabul jirga and acknowledged that Taliban fighters have been launching attacks into Afghanistan from Pakistan. He couched his relative inaction against the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance as a measure of prudence and caution. Musharraf said, "The issue then is of winning hearts and minds of people who are not militant and weaning them away from the die-hards. We must also understand that the indiscriminate use of force will only aggravate the problems. It will alienate people and further fuel the conflict."

There is truth to his words, as “alienating people” through “the indiscriminate use of force” is precisely the lesson al-Qaeda itself struggles to learn in the Iraqi theater of conflict as the Iraqi Sunni population continues to turn on bin Laden's henchmen. Further, in a hypothetical Pakistani tribal region where al-Qaeda terrorists have been defeated and its global ideology driven out, there will remain in its wake an indigenous and militant Pashtun society straddling the Pakistani-Afghan border seeking to create its own Pashtun state from slices of both countries.

However, Musharraf's reluctance to fully engage al-Qaeda and its Pashtun Taliban allies within his own territory has less to do with “alienating [local Pashtun] people” in the long term than it does the very real immediate fear that his leadership would likely not survive the ensuing civil war/insurgency such aggression would spark within Pakistan. The Pashtun Taliban and the Arab al-Qaeda are and would remain tightly allied in such an event.

Also a consideration for Musharraf is the fact that a significant portion of his rank and file foot soldiers in the Pakistani military are, in fact, Pashtuns. Gambling on their motivation and eagerness to engage their tribesmen in pitched battle must be considered at least questionable, particularly at a point where Musharraf's power is receding and his longevity in question.

But, for Musharraf and Pakistan, the initiative is not entirely their own to procrastinate. There have been several assassination attempts on Musharraf and the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance openly call for the removal of Musharraf, by any means, and an end to Pakistan's alliance with America in the War on Terror. As well, the cresting insurgency in the North West Frontier Province is an example of Islamist initiative employed effectively. Al-Qaeda seeks the forfeiture of the North West Frontier Province in similar fashion to that seen when Musharraf withdrew and ceded control of North and South Waziristan and Bajour.

The black banner of al-Qaeda can be seen in prominent display in many shops in the capital city, Peshewar, and elsewhere throughout the NWFP. This is not necessarily a display of local allegiance with al-Qaeda in all cases, perhaps not even in most, as it could be simply an overt insurance policy against attack from the same. But regardless of the degree to which al-Qaeda's black banner of jihad is displayed as a matter of oath or insurance, both reflect a local sentiment of understanding where the power lies in many areas of the NWFP.

Clearly, the initiative does not rest entirely with Musharraf, and to the degree that it does, most choices remain between bad or worse, with the former and the latter interchangeable depending on which perspective from which the situation is viewed.

Who Leaked the Intelligence to al-Qaeda and Why?

It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a definitive answer to who precisely leaked the US intelligence on al-Qaeda camps in the Waziristan provinces. However, the effect of the intelligence in the hands of al-Qaeda ironically serves both the Islamist terrorists and Musharraf at the same time. Therefor, there are two trains of thought to consider.

The first is obvious. It is clear that Islamists sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaeda within Pakistani military and/or intelligence viewed or otherwise obtained the targeting information provided, allowing the Islamists to vacate and save their significant investment in human capital, including al-Qaeda senior leadership (AQSL). This indicates a potential difficulty and a fear shared among American intelligence and military regarding potentially flagging loyalty within Musharraf's own military.

But another possibility that should be considered is that the intelligence may have been provided to these sympathetic members by Musharraf himself or at his behest. This, of course, necessarily presumes that a sympathetic members of Pakistani intelligence were not among those cleared to review it to begin with. But the short-term benefits to Musharraf as a result are undeniable, and desperate men can rarely see beyond the immediate. This can be evidenced by Musharraf's recent consideration of declaring a state of emergency in Pakistan.

It is plausible that Musharraf may have wanted the information to reach al-Qaeda with the assumption that al-Qaeda terrorists would do just as they have done in vacating the camps. With the camps vacated and the primary targets dispersed, Musharraf could then perceive a short-term reprieve from American pressure to attack or cooperate in large scale American-led attacks. Fear of the aftermath as stated above would be a driving short-term factor in the mind of the Pakistani president already under domestic siege.

Conclusion: Intelligence Sharing An American Power Play

At the end of the day, how al-Qaeda received the American intelligence – essentially a target list on their infrastructure of training camps and other assets - is less important than the meaning behind the American intelligence sharing. The United States is clearly removing the Pakistani argument of 'no actionable intelligence' on al-Qaeda targets. Under Musharraf, Pakistan has consistently employed the intelligence defense to explain away a reluctance to directly engage the dangerous (to all) Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance on Pakistan's own soil while demanding that US forces respect their territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The targeting information shared represents a power play by American leadership. The debate within the intelligence and counterterrorism communities has notably shifted from whether Musharraf's rule will survive to one which nearly exclusively centers around the state and nature of the leadership in a post-Musharraf Pakistan. Musharraf represents the only bona fide trustworthy nuclear weapons stewardship. After him come only question marks at best.

On one side of the debate, it is rightly pointed out that the Islamists and their political powers poll at less than 20% inside Pakistan. On the other side of the debate, it is also rightly pointed out that the remaining ~80% non-Islamist majority (comprised of various parties) is not the side with the guns, and that the 'change of command ceremonies' may well commence long before any Pakistani elections, which are scheduled for sometime in early 2008.

Musharraf does not even believe he would receive much support at the polls which would elect the parliament that would, in turn, elect him as president. This is evident by his contested desires to have the current parliament re-elect him to a new five year term before the majority pro-Musharraf MP's are swept from office.

And the loyalty of the Pakistani military is considered 'in-play,' replete with literally thousands of generals who often operate more for profit than serve out of patriotism or duty. They are regularly compensated handsomely in order to assure their loyalty. Financially secured loyalty is a sword that can cut both ways particularly among the more powerful where the stakes - and gains - are higher.

In any event, Musharraf's troubles seem to grow by the day and his hold on power more and more tenuous, perhaps insurmountable even for one of the world's most skilled survivors. This acknowledgment is now nearly universally held in US intelligence and military circles. With the prospect of the window of a Musharraf-led Pakistan closing in months not years, the race is on to prevent al-Qaeda terrorists and aligned Pakistani Islamists from obtaining Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and their associated launch codes.

The al-Qaeda terrorists openly seek to kill both him and us. The American push on Musharraf could be read as a decision that, if he is going to fall, Washington is going to do all it can to ensure that he falls fighting the terrorists in a frontier offensive and not in an Islamabad retreat. At the very least, gone is his defense that he cannot attack them due to a lack of actionable American intelligence. That al-Qaeda obtained and reacted to the intelligence is secondary to the fact that it was delivered to Musharraf.