Why We Are Attacking al-Qaeda Before The Musharraf Window Closes, Not The Bush Window
By Steve Schippert | June 23, 2008
A new accelerated ‘bin Laden hunt’ is reported by the UK’s Times Online. The British daily predictably characterizes the push as one vainly directed by President George W. Bush in a self-serving effort to ensure he can include the killing or capture of Usama bin Laden on his watch. Larry Kudlow noted the story and asked whether any “read any significance into it.” The answer is yes, but for none of the reasons the Times and its anonymous intelligence sources suggest. To understand this, it’s important to keep a few things in mind – including which president’s clock is dictating the pace of operations.
Simple stories about a legacy-seeking President Bush desperate to ‘get bin Laden’ on his watch are far, far easier to write (much less read) than it is to understand and communicate what’s really going on.
We’ve Seen This Before
Recall the many similar conspiracy stories that were circulated in 2004 ahead of the US Presidential elections. We were assured that President Bush had significantly stepped up efforts to do the same to ensure his own re-election. Some speculation went so far into the stratosphere as to suggest that bin Laden was already captured and that his public disclosure would be simply timed for the election.
Much the same tone exists in this story. In fact, this tone is set – not surprisingly – by an assortment of ‘unnamed’ intelligence sources. That many within the various intelligence agencies (domestic and foreign allies’) have sought to undermine the Bush Administration is no secret.
So as far as the tone is concerned regarding George W. Bush driving a big bin Laden hunt simply to be able to place a prize on his legacy mantle, caveat emptor.
The 2004 conspiracy theories about a purely-politically motivated major push to hunt bin Laden were not valid then, and they are not valid now. Here’s why. . .
Uncertain Pakistani Status
It is not that a change in government is not a major impetus for such a push to kill or capture Usama bin Laden (or Ayman al-Zawahiri for that matter). The Times report is simply looking at the wrong government in change.
In this regard, it is far more reliable to simply look at situations on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan than to presume the powers of clairvoyance among anonymous intelligence officials supposedly reading the mind of President Bush.
It is the changes in the Pakistani government that are driving the pace and scope of current operations. Pakistan’s status as a cooperative ally is in serious doubt going forward, and no one knows exactly when the current level of cooperation will end. But it appears that day is much sooner than we would like.
Consider that, as much as many of us have criticized Pervez Musharraf in the past (present company certainly included), ahead of the last elections he did execute a major and bloody military offensive throughout much of the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance’s safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province.
The newly-elected parliamentary majority made no secret of its intention to put an end to offensive operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in their havens and instead engage in talks. Since gaining power, we have seen the ‘peace accords’ that Musharraf tried from 2003 to 2006 duplicated once again, appeasing the terrorists.
These ‘peace accords’ are what set the conditions for al-Qaeda’s re-establishment within the havens afforded and are directly responsible for their resurgence inside areas of Pakistan to levels even greater than that enjoyed in Afghanistan leading up to 9/11.
And this new Pakistani government has made agreements that consist of the same imbalanced conditions, nearly verbatim. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Bill Roggio so rightly put it in <a title="Weekly Standard: Descent into Appeasement" The Weekly Standard, the new Pakistani government “has done nothing to answer the problem of the past accords and is again accepting promises that it has no means of enforcing.”
There’s A New Sharif In Town
This is now the changing face of our once-reluctant ally, which by most estimations – including Pakistani – will likely soon shed the ‘ally’ and simply become ‘reluctant.’ Just this Monday, former Pakistani prime minister and head of the PML-N party (Pakistani Muslim League – Nawaz) of the power-sharing parliamentary majority, Nawaz Sharif, was within earshot of the parliament and Musharraf’s presidential offices whipping an angry crowd of about 20,000 into chants of “Hang Musharraf!”
Of course, Sharif has a significant axe to grind – it was he and his government that Musharraf overthrew in a bloodless coup in 1999. He will exact his revenge at any cost. For Sharif, revenge is not best served cold, it is simply best served, period.
It should thus come as no surprise that Sharif leads his party – and the new Pakistani government - away from confrontation with the terrorists of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and headlong into talks and unenforceable agreements. They share common ambitions, including the violent death of Pervez Musharraf.
Michael Scheuer noted in his seminal book on al-Qaeda, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, that when Nawaz Sharif made his first failed run at becoming prime minister of Pakistan, Pakistani news reports said that he had accepted campaign donations from Usama bin Laden to the tune of 3 billion rupees.
This is the same Nawaz Sharif who was said to be a part of a bin Laden-funded (reportedly $10 million) plot to assassinate then-PM Benazir Bhutto, orchestrated by then-ISI director Hamid Gul. In fact, a former ISI official by the name of Khalid Khawaja who claims to have been a close personal friend of bin Laden, said that Sharif and bin Laden have known each other and that their “connection goes all the way back to the late 1980s when, he says, Sharif and bin Laden met face-to-face.”
Simply put, bad actors await Musharraf’s exit, fully willing to facilitate his exit themselves. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda have tried several times to assassinate him, and Nawaz Sharif openly wants to hang him.
An Established al-Qaeda = Established Targets
Purely from an operational perspective, keep in mind what it means to have an al-Qaeda fully re-established beyond its pre-9/11 levels within Pakistan. Inside North Waziristan and South Waziristan alone there are at least 29 known training camps established, with less than a handful used for training Taliban cannon fodder thrust across the border into Afghanistan. The rest are core al-Qaeda terrorist training camps.
This by-product of repeated Pakistani ‘peace accords’ means two things: Key structural targets and, more importantly, an influx of terrorists utilizing them. This al-Qaeda re-establishment, while serving the group to train, expand and export, brings with it the renewed dimension of occasional ‘target-rich environments’ for the good guys.
While our intelligence is never as good as we would like, it has been good enough to exact some important kills in the region, usually via Predator drones armed with hellfire missiles.
In addition, Afghan president Hamid Kharzi’s recent threat to send Afghan troops across the border into Pakistan’s Taliban and al-Qaeda lairs in pursuit of its attacking enemy can and should be seen as an extension of the American sense of urgency. While Pakistan decried the threat, the fact remains that Pakistan has had little effect and/or little desire in preventing Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists from launching cross-border attacks from its own territory, no matter hos its peace accords with these terrorists are worded.
So What Does All This Mean?
What all this means is that our ability to actively pursue and kill al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists inside their Pakistani safe havens with Pakistan’s cooperation and/or acquiescence may come to a crashing halt very soon. The window is closing. Not on the Bush presidency, but on the Musharraf presidency.
Would it be good for President Bush to lay claim to bin Laden – embalmed or imprisoned – at the end of his second term? Yes, of course. But no more so than it would have been at any time during his presidency, including ahead of an uncertain 2004 election when such portrayals also became popular. And lost in the Bush obsession is the simple fact that the capture or killing of bin Laden would be good for America and the West.
What’s going on right now is a significant up-tick in kinetic activity against the enemy where he gathers before the Musharraf window closes tightly shut. Because when Musharraf is gone – whether hanged or high-tailed – gone also is an irreplaceable level of current Pakistani cooperation, which also includes critical supply routes from Kirachi ports over land into remote Afghanistan.
Fighting and defeating the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance inside Pakistan will become no less critical once that happens, yet this task will become significantly more difficult and ugly. And we will long for the good old days when we could complain about the level of Musharraf’s cooperation rather than the level of his successor government’s intransigence, as it slides from a reluctant ally into…something else.
Nawaz Sharif, friend of bin Laden and head of the PML-N party currently sharing power, had 20,000 screaming “Hang Musharraf!” outside the presidential offices last Monday. The clock ticks.
NOTE: Readers can listen to the author in a radio interview on this analysis here.