HOMELAND Security Secretary Michael Chertoff makes a good point: No one who has been following the news should have been surprised by the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that al-Qaeda is growing stronger and that the threat that it will stage another major attack against the U.S. homeland is a serious one. That al-Qaeda has established a sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal areas -- cited as among "key elements" in the regeneration of "its homeland attack ability" by the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) -- has been known and discussed since last year. The "leverage" provided by a thriving affiliate organization in Iraq is all too obvious. What's missing in Washington is not information about al-Qaeda, Mr. Chertoff says, but a readiness to make hard decisions about how to protect the country.
The Homeland Security chief has some choices he'd like Congress to make, including modifications to visa-free travel to the United States and the installation of technology allowing for tighter screening of air travelers. The issues he raises are important, and we will return to them. Yet, if there is one decision that seems most urgent in light of the intelligence reports, it is what to do about the al-Qaeda base in Pakistan, which is allowing the group's senior leadership to coordinate with what the NIE calls "operational lieutenants" and to train militants for operations in Europe and the United States.
The Bush administration has been ducking this critical problem for too long, despite the clear lesson of Afghanistan. The Sept. 11 commission concluded that tolerance of al-Qaeda's sanctuary there was of "direct and indirect value . . . to al-Qaeda in preparing the 9/11 attack." The commission said the U.S. government must disrupt such bases in the future "using all elements of national power." Senior administration officials have publicly acknowledged since early this year that an al-Qaeda sanctuary exists in Pakistan. But they have rigidly stuck to a strategy of depending on Pakistan's autocratic president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to take that disruptive action -- even while Mr. Musharraf has pursued a contrary policy of appeasing the Pakistani tribesmen who are harboring the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Administration officials say they believe Mr. Musharraf will resume military operations in the tribal areas after a 10-month suspension -- if only because the militants broke a truce last week and attacked government forces. But earlier operations by the Pakistani army failed; government forces may be too weak to break up the sanctuary. Mr. Musharraf himself is preoccupied with preserving his own regime. If the militants offer him a separate peace, he may well accept it.
The administration says it has a comprehensive strategy that involves funneling $750 million over five years into development programs in the impoverished tribal areas and beefing up the Pakistani forces that patrol the frontier with Afghanistan. The State Department says it is also pressing for democratic elections in Pakistan this year, though it has ignored Mr. Musharraf's blatant preparations to manipulate the process. If it really were to focus on economic development and democracy rather than propping up the tottering general, the United States might contribute to stabilizing, over a period of years, one of the world's wildest territories.
Yet that won't address the imminent threat of a revived al-Qaeda organization able to strike the United States from a secure base. If Pakistani forces cannot -- or will not -- eliminate the sanctuary, President Bush must order targeted strikes or covert actions by American forces, as he has done several times in recent years. Such actions run the risk of further destabilizing Pakistan. Yet those risks must be weighed against the consequences of another large-scale attack on U.S. soil. "Direct intervention against the sanctuary in Afghanistan apparently must have seemed . . . disproportionate to the threat," the Sept. 11 commission noted. The United States must not repeat that tragic misjudgment.