AFTER THE attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there was a painful and sometimes bitter debate in this country about how two administrations could have failed to take decisive action against an obvious threat -- al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan. The Sept. 11 commission concluded that it was partly a "problem of imagination": Few U.S. officials considered the possibility that al-Qaeda was capable of reaching out from its remote base to stage devastating strikes on New York and Washington.
We know now that allowing al-Qaeda a safe haven can have terrible consequences for U.S. homeland security. And yet the Bush administration appears to be letting the threat develop again. For several months U.S. intelligence officials and independent observers have been telling journalists -- most recently at the New York Times -- that al-Qaeda has established several camps in the Pakistani territory of North Waziristan, along the Afghan border. Those camps are populated by Pakistani, Afghan and foreign militants; some may be Westerners who are being trained for attacks in Europe or the United States.
The camps have operated unhindered since at least September, when Pakistan's military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, agreed to a separate peace deal with local Taliban leaders. Since then, cross-border attacks by the Taliban into Afghanistan have tripled, according to the U.S. military. Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in Waziristan have developed a "complex cooperative relationship," Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testified before the House Armed Services Committee last week. Yet no action has been taken, either by the United States or by Pakistan, its nominal ally in the war on terrorism.
President Bush accepted and endorsed Mr. Musharraf's truce with the militants when it was reached. Now senior administration officials acknowledge that it has created serious problems. "A steady, direct attack against the command and control in Pakistan in sanctuary areas is essential," Gen. Eikenberry said. In separate congressional testimony, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "President Musharraf . . . has to do something." Mr. Musharraf has done nothing. Instead, he has continued to defend his deal with the Taliban and suggested that similar havens should be created in Afghanistan. The provincial governor who brokered the deal held a news conference last weekend at which he said the truce was a success and called the Taliban's terrorism against U.S. and NATO forces "a resistance movement, sort of a liberation war."
The administration's response to such statements -- and Pakistan's failure to act -- has been to heap praise on Mr. Musharraf and to express sympathy for the pressure he is said to be under. Such indulgence, which has gone on for five years while the general has tempered his action against Islamic extremists and suppressed Pakistan's pro-Western democratic parties, will be hard to defend if the consequences of allowing al-Qaeda a safe haven are unchanged. "Direct intervention against the sanctuary in Afghanistan apparently must have seemed . . . to be disproportionate to the threat," said the Sept. 11 commission report. Is that how the administration thinks of Waziristan?