The U.S. sounds like it wants to ramp up actions in Pakistan against al Qaeda, according to the new National Intelligence Estimate.
In identifying the main reasons for Al Qaeda’s resurgence, intelligence officials and White House aides pointed the finger squarely at a hands-off approach toward the tribal areas by Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who last year brokered a cease-fire with tribal leaders in an effort to drain support for Islamic extremism in the region.
“It hasn’t worked for Pakistan,” said Frances Fragos Townsend, who heads the Homeland Security Council at the White House. “It hasn’t worked for the United States.”
While Bush administration officials had reluctantly endorsed the cease-fire as part of their effort to prop up the Pakistani leader, they expressed relief on Tuesday that General Musharraf may have to abandon that approach, because the accord seems to have unraveled.
But American officials make little secret of their skepticism that General Musharraf has the capability to be effective in the mountainous territory along the Afghan border, where his troops have been bloodied before by a mix of Qaeda leaders and tribes that view the territory as their own, not part of Pakistan.
“We’ve seen in the past that he’s sent people in and they get wiped out,” said one senior official involved in the internal debate. “You can tell from the language today that we take the threat from the tribal areas incredibly seriously. It has to be dealt with. If he can deal with it, amen. But if he can’t, he’s got to build and borrow the capability.”
The bleak intelligence assessment was made public in the middle of a bitter Congressional debate about the future of American policy in Iraq. White House officials said it bolstered the Bush administration’s argument that Iraq was the “central front” in the war on terror, because that was where Qaeda operatives were directly attacking American forces.
The report nevertheless left the White House fending off accusations that it had been distracted by the war in Iraq and that the deals it had made with President Musharraf had resulted in lost time and lost ground.
The assessment also notes the absence of a credible, specific threat at this time. However, a “persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next two to three years” was predicted.
The strange thing is that Frances Fragos Townsend, head of the White House’s homeland security council, tried to spin Iraq as being the front of the war on terror, no doubt to back up Dubya’s utterances on the subject.
She argued that it was Mr. bin Laden, as well as the White House, who regarded “Iraq as the central front in the war on terror.”
The Washington Post had this headline: Intelligence puts rationale for war on shakier ground:
The White House faced fresh political peril yesterday in the form of a new intelligence assessment that raised sharp questions about the success of its counterterrorism strategy and judgment in making Iraq the focus of that effort.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush has been able to deflect criticism of his counterterrorism policy by repeatedly noting the absence of any new domestic attacks and by citing the continuing threat that terrorists in Iraq pose to U.S. interests.
But this line of defense seemed to unravel a bit yesterday with the release of a new National Intelligence Estimate that concludes that al-Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability” by reestablishing a haven in Pakistan and reconstituting its top leadership. The report also notes that al-Qaeda has been able “to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks,” by associating itself with an Iraqi subsidiary.
These disclosures triggered a new round of criticism from Democrats and others who say that the administration took its eye off the ball by invading Iraq without first destroying Osama bin Laden‘s organization in Afghanistan.