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The Next Chapter in the Shadow War Between the U.S. and al-Qaeda

A long pause follows. Bin Laden breaks it, speaking softly, looking at the rug beneath him. "I fear this Barack is not as weak as you think, doctor. Already, many of the faithful are ready to forgive the Americans their sins just because they have chosen him as their leader. It is a setback for us." Bin Laden raises his head, and a wry smile passes briefly over his face. "But . . . his economy is badly ill. If it gets much worse, he will have to bring all of his troops home. So . . . we may have to increase their pain level. We have done that before."

* * *

On the ground level of the West Wing of the White House, a dozen men and women trickle into the wood-paneled Situation Room. They balance thick briefing books and cups of hot coffee from the White House Mess next door. The meeting's chairman, a member of the National Security Council staff, brings to order this gathering of the Counterterrorism Security Group, the committee that coordinates U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Behind and above his chair is the seal of the president of the United States.

"All right, let's get going," the NSC man intones. "President Obama wants a high-level game plan for counterterrorism efforts in 2009. First, we need the intelligence picture." The NSC staffer turns to the woman sitting to his left, who works in the National Counterterrorism Center.

"Well, as we said in the recent National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism, we had a break for a while after we smashed the al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan after 9/11," she begins. "But now al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the Pakistani tribal areas, right along the border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani army tries every once in a while to rein them in, but essentially, they're just too weak to gain control of the Wild West border areas. Al-Qaeda is busy training terrorists up there, including Europeans and Asians, people who could slip into the United States without arousing suspicion. And al-Qaeda is also developing another sanctuary in Somalia, where their local allies have been taking over Somali cities. It's not a soothing picture. We could see al-Qaeda attacks in 2009 on the Arabian Peninsula, in Europe, even here at home. But of course, we have no actionable intelligence pointing to a specific plot."

The intelligence officer pauses. "We are also getting reports that al-Qaeda has created joint fighting units with the Taliban, which are attacking U.S. bases in Afghanistan from their sanctuary inside Pakistan."

Sighing, the NSC man turns to the Navy admiral on his right for a report from the military. The white-suited officer signals a colonel sitting behind him to project a PowerPoint slide onto the large flat screen at the end of the room. "As you can see from Chart One," the admiral says, "we will reinforce Afghanistan with one brigade from the 82nd Airborne in the first quarter of '09. What we do after that depends on how fast we can get more brigades out of Iraq and over to the Afghan front."

The colonel clicks a button. "Chart Two," the admiral says. "We anticipate a major Taliban offensive in April, once the brutal winter weather passes. Which is good for us, because once we get them out in the open, we can pound 'em with airpower."

Another click from the colonel. "Chart Three," the admiral continues. "But to 'win' in Afghanistan, we need the State Department to step up to the plate. We need reconstruction, economic development, governance efforts. State also needs to persuade the Pakistanis to clean up the border area and keep our supply lines into Afghanistan secure."

The State Department representative, a career Foreign Service officer, takes her cue. "That's not going to be easy," she warns. "We were making some decent progress with the Pakistanis last year, even getting them to start a rapprochement with the Indians. But after Mumbai, all of that is at risk. If the Indians overreact, we could really be off to the races. We need our new president to use his pretty considerable appeal in South Asia, not just to stop these hotheads from going to war, but to actually broker a deal between India and Pakistan. He also needs to persuade the NATO allies to keep their forces in Afghanistan, maybe increase their numbers a little and allow them to fight. And of course, he has to win the battle of ideas by reestablishing America's support for democracy, human rights and international law."

The NSC man looks at the ceiling tiles. "And what would you have the president do on the second day?"

* * *

Seven years after 9/11, the United States has neither eliminated the threat from al-Qaeda nor secured Afghanistan, where bin Laden's terrorists were once headquartered. To accomplish these two tasks, we must now eliminate the new terrorist safe haven in Pakistan. But that will require effective action from a weak and riven Pakistani government. It might also depend upon dealing with the long-standing India-Pakistan rivalry. On balance, al-Qaeda's agenda for 2009 looks to be the easier one.

Richard A. Clarke served as White House counterterrorism coordinator under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. His most recent book is "Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters."

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