Sept. 10 in Waziristan
The National Intelligence Estimate released July 17 put the problem plainly enough: Al-Qaeda has "regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability" using a new haven in the lawless frontier area of northwest Pakistan known as Waziristan.
The question is: What is the United States going to do about it?
For those who might have forgotten in the six years since Sept. 11, 2001, what a reconstituted al-Qaeda could do, the intelligence analysts explained that the terrorist group has "the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks and/or fear among the U.S. population." The analysts noted that al-Qaeda continues to seek biological, radiological and nuclear weapons "and would not hesitate to use them."
Perhaps it is human nature not to see threats clearly until a disaster happens -- even if it's the second time around. How else to explain the limited public response to this clear and emphatic warning? Maybe the Bush administration has cried wolf about terrorism so often that people have stopped believing anything the government says. Or that the whole subject is now obscured by the choking fog of Iraq, as in the president's mind-numbing formulation of the threat: "They are al-Qaeda . . . in . . . Iraq."
But the question remains: What should the United States do about al-Qaeda's new haven in Pakistan, from which it may already be plotting attacks that could kill thousands of Americans? It is Sept. 10, metaphorically, with a little increment of time still remaining. We can see "the looming tower," to borrow the title of Lawrence Wright's fine book. But how do we stop the airplanes?
The Bush administration will attack "actionable targets anywhere in the world, putting aside whether it was Pakistan or anyplace else," warned Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser. That drew the predictable indignant response from the Pakistani government, which doesn't want to go after the al-Qaeda cells in Waziristan but doesn't want anyone else to do it, either.
So again, what should the United States do? The lesson of Sept. 11 is that it's necessary to act decisively. But the lesson of Iraq is that unwise actions can make the terrorism problem worse. Which course is right?
The best answer I've heard comes from Henry Crumpton, a former CIA officer who was one of the heroes of the agency's campaign to destroy al-Qaeda's haven in Afghanistan in late 2001. After retiring from the CIA in 2005, he served as the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism. He resigned from State in February and is now a fellow at the EastWest Institute and a private consultant.
Crumpton argues that the United States must take preventive action but that it should do so carefully, through proxies wherever possible. The right model for a Waziristan campaign is the CIA-led operation in Afghanistan, not the U.S. military invasion of Iraq. Teams of CIA officers and Special Forces soldiers are best suited to work with tribal leaders, providing them weapons and money to fight an al-Qaeda network that has implanted itself brutally in Waziristan through the assassination of more than 100 tribal leaders during the past six years. It would be better to conduct such operations jointly with Pakistan, but if the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf can't or won't cooperate, the United States should be prepared to go it alone, Crumpton argues.
"The United States has an obligation to defend itself and its citizens," says Crumpton. "We either do it now, or we do it after the next attack."
Crumpton proposed a detailed plan last year for rolling up these sanctuaries, which he called the Regional Strategic Initiative. It would combine economic assistance and paramilitary operations in a broad counterinsurgency campaign. In Waziristan, U.S. and Pakistani operatives would give tribal warlords guns and money, to be sure, but they would coordinate this covert action with economic aid to help tribal leaders operate their local stone quarries more efficiently, say, or install windmills and solar panels to generate electricity for their remote mountain villages.
Intervening in another Muslim country is risky, to put it mildly. That's why a successful counterinsurgency program would need Pakistani support and why its economic and social development components would be critical. The concept should be President John F. Kennedy's "Alliance for Progress" to counter radicalism in Latin America, rather than "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
The United States can begin to take action now against al-Qaeda's new haven. Or we can wait, and hope that we don't get hit again. The biggest danger in waiting is that if retaliation proves necessary later, it could be ill-planned and heavy-handed -- precisely what got us in trouble in Iraq.