The Magazine

While Pakistan Burns

Al Qaeda regroups in the tribal areas, the government falters. What is to be done?

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS
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If there were any doubt about the reach of militants in Pakistan, last week's events should have put them to rest. The ostentatious procession celebrating the return home of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was tragically cut short by twin bombs that killed over 130 and wounded several hundred more on Thursday night. The attackers almost succeeded in killing Bhutto as well. The blast shattered the windows in her vehicle and set a police escort car ablaze. The sophistication of the attack was apparent from the outset, and the bombs may have been accompanied by sniper fire.

But extremist violence in Pakistan is hardly news. The raids against the militant Lal Masjid mosque on July 11 occurred in Islamabad, the capital city. Supporters of al Qaeda exist in the military and intelligence services; indeed, there may prove to be a link between militant infiltrators of these institutions and the attempt on Bhutto's life. The mysterious fact that the streetlights were off and the phone lines dead during the attack further raises the possibility of collaboration with ideologically sympathetic low-level government officials. Still, the stronghold of militant activity in Pakistan is clearly the remote and mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border with Afghanistan, where Pakistan has ceded more and more ground to al Qaeda and its allies over the past year.

The government's successive concessions to militants have not always been viewed as defeats; indeed officials tried to spin them as successes. A year ago, after the signing of one agreement, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States told a network reporter, "The Waziristan accord is not a good thing--it's a very good thing. It's a new step." Although the accords ceded control over significant portions of the FATA to tribal leaders aligned with al Qaeda and the Taliban, Washington was slow to sound the alarm. Some State Department officials defended the agreements, and President Bush himself offered tepid support during a September 2006 press conference with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf.

One year and three more accords later, all concede that the tribal areas are now the stronghold of al Qaeda's senior leadership--probably including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. As in Afghanistan under the Taliban, terrorist training camps operate freely, believed by U.S. intelligence to number almost 30. The 9/11 Commission Report warned that to carry out a catastrophic act of terror like 9/11, an organization requires "time, space, and the ability to perform competent planning and staff work," as well as "a command structure able to make necessary decisions and possessing the authority and contacts to assemble needed people, money, and materials." Al Qaeda now enjoys both of these in Pakistan.

One result is the heightened terrorist threat manifest in the attack on Bhutto, but also in recent plots against the West. Last year U.S. and British authorities announced the disruption of an ambitious scheme to blow up airliners en route from Britain to the United States with liquid explosives. The operatives had trained at al Qaeda's FATA camps and met with high-level operatives Matiur Rehman and Abu Ubaydah al-Masri in Pakistan. Homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff recently told ABC News that the plot, if successful, would have killed thousands. One day last month, authorities in Europe arrested two terrorist cells in Denmark and Germany. Both cells were allegedly planning attacks; both were in touch with high-level extremists in Pakistan and had members who had trained there. While these arrests represent a success for law enforcement, they also signal al Qaeda's regeneration.

Al Qaeda's rebound was several years in the making. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 toppled the Taliban, most of al Qaeda's central leadership relocated to the FATA. Prompted by assassination attempts against Musharraf, Pakistan's military mounted a campaign to flush al Qaeda out of the tribal areas--but it suffered so many losses that by September 2006 Musharraf felt he had no option but to deal with his would-be killers. His solution was the Waziristan accords, peace agreements that essentially ceded North and South Waziristan to the Taliban and al Qaeda. As part of the accords, Pakistan's military agreed that it would no longer carry out air or ground strikes in the tribal areas, that it would disband its human intelligence network, and that it would abandon outposts and border crossings throughout Waziristan. The accords even allowed non-Pakistani militants to continue to reside in Waziristan if they made an unenforceable promise to "keep the peace."