Al-Qaeda's Sanctuary

Thursday, December 21, 2006

THREE MONTHS ago the Pakistani government struck a deal with pro-Taliban leaders in the district of North Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan: It agreed to abandon military operations, withdraw the army and release prisoners in exchange for promises that the militants would cease cross-border attacks and disarm the foreign terrorists in their midst. That the extremists would not respect the accord, and that attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan would increase rather than decline, obviously seemed likely at the time. Yet President Bush, ever indulgent of Pakistan's autocratic ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, accepted his promises. "When the president looks me in the eye and says the tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanization of the people, and that there won't be a Taliban and won't be al-Qaeda, I believe him," Mr. Bush declared when he met Gen. Musharraf at the White House on Sept. 22.

As senior administration officials now acknowledge, Gen. Musharraf's assurances were empty -- as they have been many times before. According to multiple independent reports, Waziristan has been thoroughly Talibanized, and the fundamentalists are spreading their influence through adjacent border districts. Cross-border attacks and the deaths of American soldiers that they cause are up significantly. Al-Qaeda is reliably reported to be operating training camps in North Waziristan with the help of scores of foreign militants who are schooling recruits in suicide bombing and the use of improvised explosive devices. According to a stunning report in the current edition of Newsweek, they are also preparing Western citizens who could carry out major terrorist attacks in Britain or the United States.

Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte grossly understated the case last week when he told The Post that "tribal authorities are not living up to the deal" struck by Gen. Musharraf and that the Taliban cross-border activity "causes serious problems." Considering the grave threat to U.S. soldiers and the homeland itself posed by the Pakistani sanctuary, the intelligence chief sounded positively laconic. "Sooner or later the government will have to reckon with it," he said, before quickly offering excuses for Gen. Musharraf, who, he said, "has a domestic political balancing act to perform."

In fact the situation in Pakistan's border areas is starting to look a lot like eastern Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001. President Bush and Mr. Negroponte ought to be asking themselves if they are repeating history by tolerating the situation. They need not do so: The United States has provided Gen. Musharraf strategic cover and billions of dollars in military and economic aid since 2001. In return it should have the right to demand that he abandon his separate peace. Action must be taken against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan before spring, when another major offensive against U.S. and NATO forces can be expected unless the enemy bases and supply lines are disrupted.

As for Gen. Musharraf's political problems, these could be addressed if he stopped allying himself with Pakistan's own Muslim fundamentalists and rehabilitated the secular democratic political parties that he has repressed since his 1999 coup. He could also abolish the colonial governing system in the tribal areas, under which secular political parties are banned and mullahs empowered, and allow representative government. By tolerating the general's empty promises and excuses, the Bush administration is putting its mission in Afghanistan and homeland security into unacceptable jeopardy.

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