Those conclusions were immediately seized on by critics, including the Democratic leadership in Congress, of the administration's anti-terror strategy. They have long argued that its invasion of Iraq in early 2003 not only diverted crucial resources and attention from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also acted as an extraordinarily effective recruitment tool for al Qaeda and like-minded militants.
"Iraq matters because it has become a cause celebre and because groups like al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda central exploit the image of the U.S. being out to occupy Muslim lands,' Paul Pillar, a retired senior Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), told the Washington Post in an analysis entitled "Intelligence Puts Rationale for (Iraq) War on Shakier Ground.' As he did within the CIA before the invasion, Pillar has argued that Washington's military intervention in Iraq has actually fuelled radical Islamist forces, including al Qaeda.
Indeed, the new estimate, the first on al Qaeda's potential threat to the United States since the 9/11 attacks, appears to have revived a long-standing debate over the Bush administration's contention that Iraq constitutes the "central front in the war on terrorism,' an assertion which Bush himself has curiously based mainly on a similar statement by al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden.
Counter-terrorism experts, particularly from the intelligence community, have long questioned that thesis, and the latest estimate, as indicated by the Post articles' headline, clearly backs them up by stressing that Pakistan-based al Qaeda and its extended network of affiliates and operatives remain "the most serious threat' to the U.S. homeland.
The Bush administration has long prodded the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to attack suspected al Qaeda bases in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan, and its army did so with some success between late 2001 and 2004, when it captured or killed a number of high-ranking al Qaeda operatives, sometimes with the help of U.S. intelligence and its Predator missiles.
But after a series of clashes with local Taliban and foreign forces, the army over the past 18 months withdrew from North and South Waziristan and other parts of the mostly Pashtun Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in exchange for pledges by tribal leaders there to expel foreign fighters and prevent infiltration of Taliban forces into Afghanistan.
In fact, the army's departure left the region in the control of the Pakistani Taliban which not only provided al Qaeda the kind of safe haven it needed to rebuild its capabilities, but also begin to aggressively exert its influence over neighboring territories and even into Islamabad.
Indeed, it was last week's bloody denouement to the protracted army siege of the capital's Red Mosque that resulted in the breakdown of the Waziristan peace accords and a series of attacks and suicide bombings, including in Islamabad. Musharraf, who was encouraged by Washington to confront the militants who controlled the Red Mosque, has responded by deploying troops into tribal areas.
"Some military action is necessary and will probably have to be taken,' said Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher, who announced that Washington hopes to provide most of the $350 million Musharraf has requested to help train, equip and deploy Pakistani forces, including a proposed new "Frontier Corps,' to the tribal regions to enforce the central government's writ there.
Washington has already pledged some $750 million over five years to FATA to promote economic development, but total aid still amounts to less than what the U.S. military spends in Iraq in just four days.
Boucher added that the decision by Musharraf, who also faces a growing opposition movement from the secular political parties, to attack the mosque, has "pretty much cross(ed) a line, and there's no going back.'
The administration indeed hopes that Musharraf and the military will carry the fight into the tribal areas and, in so doing, disrupt al Qaeda's infrastructure there to the greatest extent possible.
"I think that what you will see is a disruption of extremists, both al Qaeda-related extremists and also local extremists who are engaged in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan,' Robert Grenier, another former CIA official, told a public television interviewer this week.
But more-aggressive military action also carries serious risks to Musharraf, who, according to some accounts, was forced into the withdrawal agreements by his own army commanders.
"They're very afraid of sparking a wider civil war among the Pashtuns of Pakistan, because one has to remember that most Pashtuns live in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan, but they identify very closely with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan,' Anatol Lieven, a South Asia expert at the New America Foundation, said on the same program. "And the Pashtuns also contribute disproportionately to the Pakistani army.'
That concern was echoed by Alexis Debat, a regional specialist at the Nixon Center here. "There are a lot tensions now between Pashtuns and Punjabis, and if you hit the Pashtuns, then the secular Punjabis are happy, and if Pashtuns and Punjabis start killing each other, the implications would be extremely serious.,' he told IPS. "The thing I see as a threat, even in the short term, is that Pakistan just breaks down.'
Another problem, he added, is that "the Pakistani military does not really have the capacity to fight an insurgency in the tribal areas. The few operations they mounted in (the Waziristans) really didn't go well at all, and they just threw in the towel.'
If, indeed, the Pakistani army proves either unable or unwilling to undertake offensive operations, pressure here may grow for direct U.S. intervention beyond the covert intelligence and limited special operations co-operation that Washington currently provides. But most analysts here warn against any move in that direction. "It would lead to major riots throughout Pakistan and the Arab world, and it would lead to certainly a major insurgency against U.S. forces,' Seth Jones, a South Asia specialist at the RAND Institute told Australian Broadcasting Corporation this week.
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Albion Monitor July
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