Tougher Stance on Pakistan Took Months
Sunday, August 5, 2007
Last September, when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited the White House to tout a controversial plan for driving al-Qaeda from his country, President Bush responded at a joint news conference with a trademark profession of faith. When Musharraf "looks me in the eye" and says there "won't be a Taliban and there won't be an al-Qaeda, I believe him," Bush said.
Ten months later, the administration's top terrorism official gave reporters a starkly different view of that plan, declaring that al-Qaeda had established a safe haven inside the very country that Bush had hailed as a "strong partner" in the war on terrorism. Musharraf's anti-terrorism plan "hasn't worked for Pakistan. It hasn't worked for the United States," Frances Fragos Townsend, White House homeland security adviser, said in late July.
The change in the administration's public tone came after months of internal U.S. discussion and quiet diplomacy to pressure a key ally into taking direct action against what analysts say was a newly assertive al-Qaeda rebuilding a stronghold to plan attacks against Western targets -- a disconcerting replay of the period before Sept. 11, 2001.
As classified reports throughout the past year showed al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters opening new training camps and moving operatives and money across the Afghan border, the White House dispatched a stream of high-powered officials to Islamabad to pressure a reluctant Musharraf into changing course.
When the diplomatic campaign finally failed, the administration took a more dramatic step. After years of professing uncertainty about the whereabouts of al-Qaeda's commanders, it publicly declared in excerpts of a new National Intelligence Estimate what analysts had long believed: The terrorist group had ensconced itself in a remote mountain enclave ostensibly under Pakistani control. In late spring, drafts of that document were deliberately altered to reveal this conclusion, a move that "changed the complexion" of the nearly finished report, a senior intelligence official familiar with the revisions said.
The July 17 U.S. claim sparked outrage in Islamabad but helped yield the result that U.S. officials sought. Musharraf abandoned his truce with tribal leaders and on July 19 formally launched a military offensive aimed at breaking the terrorists' grip on the frontier provinces.
The events leading to the public confrontation with Pakistan -- including the alarming evidence of al-Qaeda and Taliban retrenchment in northern Pakistan -- were described in new detail by more than a half-dozen senior administration and intelligence officials. None would talk about the subject on the record, citing the sensitivity of the bilateral relationship and the political fallout from the intelligence assessment.
Pakistani officials say the change in tactics had nothing to do with U.S. pressure, and they insist that Musharraf's plan for using tribal militias to drive out al-Qaeda remains viable. "We are as committed to defeating terrorism as the United States is, because the threat to us is far greater," Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, said in an interview.
But U.S. officials say Musharraf's new offensive is already having a more tangible impact than months of diplomacy and subtle pressure on tribal chieftains and mullahs in remote villages. After a spike in terrorists' cross-border raids into Afghanistan over the past year -- including a doubling of the number of attacks in June compared with the previous year -- violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border leveled off last month.
Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. conventional forces in Afghanistan, recently linked that progress to the start of the Pakistani offensive. Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Rodriguez also said that U.S. and Pakistani forces were doing a better job of sharing intelligence and coordinating their response to Taliban attacks, adding that the United States saw no need to deploy its forces on the Pakistani side of the border.
"They're a sovereign country," he said, "and they're doing a military operation now to provide better security there."
An Increase in Al-Qaeda Activity
The stream of high-powered visitors who flew from Washington to Islamabad early this year bore no good news for Musharraf. Starting with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Feb. 12, and followed closely by Vice President Cheney and others, the Americans showed Musharraf sensitive intelligence revealing a substantial increase in al-Qaeda activity in the country's west.