By Joby Warrick and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 9, 2008
Pakistan faces a growing threat from a new generation of radicalized, battle-hardened militants who embrace jihad and have become allied with local and international terrorists intent on toppling the pro-Western government, a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters yesterday.
The young extremists -- heavily armed men in their 20s and 30s from Pakistan's rugged western border -- are the virulent core of a growing insurgency that has claimed hundreds of lives and threatens to destabilize one of the United States' closest allies in its efforts against terrorism, several intelligence and administration officials said.
Compared with previous insurgent groups, the newcomers are well-armed, ideological and difficult to control, with fewer allegiances to local religious and tribal leaders and structures. Pakistan's government and army are unprepared to deal with the new groups, the officials said in separate briefings on the ongoing violence.
"The Pakistanis are at the very steep part of the learning curve," said the senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. "The military leadership sees the importance of getting it right. But they are dealing with a very battle-hardened adversary."
A different administration official, describing the same phenomenon, said the fresh signs of coordination among formerly diverse groups of local militants are ominous.
"They used to be brigands running around taking potshots at passing patrols. That's not what we're seeing," this official said. "There's an element of coordination, clear communication between units and possibly even a command structure that everyone understands. That's a frightening phenomenon."
The extent of coordination among the groups -- and the nature of their ties with al-Qaeda -- is not fully known. But what is now clear is that "groups that used to fight and feud are now organizing themselves together," mostly in the federally administered, tribally ruled region bordering Afghanistan, the administration official said.
Both Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden have warned since last year of the growing threat from tribal militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, some of whom have forged alliances with al-Qaeda terrorists who have established a sanctuary there.
The gloomy assessments, coming 10 days ahead of Pakistan's scheduled presidential election, in some ways echoed the public testimony of McConnell, Hayden and other intelligence officials earlier this week. They described increased U.S. efforts to help Pakistan in its fight against the groups but noted that Pakistan's military, which has long organized itself for a war with India, remains largely untrained to combat the growing insurgency.
Despite billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid to Pakistan, U.S. observers "don't see the insurgency groups being diminished in any way," the senior intelligence official said in yesterday's briefing.
In addition to launching military offensives in the frontier area, Islamabad has sought to end the violence through cease-fires negotiated with tribal leaders and, in some cases, the militants themselves. But while such approaches worked in the past, they are no longer enough, the intelligence official said.
"If these groups are not beholden to any existing authority structures, it makes it hard to have leverage over them," he said. "If there is no leverage, you get into a difficult military situation."
He described the new insurgents as the offspring of the generation of mujaheddin who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s -- men now in their 20s and 30s who grew up around violence in remote villages that offered little educational or economic opportunity. Many also are influenced by tribal traditions that demand retribution when family members are killed.
Al-Qaeda members who fled into the mountainous region from Afghanistan have skillfully forged ties with the groups, sometimes by providing help with finances or training, or by intermarrying, the official said. For its side of the bargain, al-Qaeda gets a haven and at times much more.
"Whether there is a sense of common purpose of synergy is hard to tell," the official said. "But we know they have common interests."