In his speech at West Point last week, President Obama indicated that no amount of extra troops would offset the Afghan Taliban’s ability to retreat and regroup in their Pakistani cross-border sanctuaries. Before his young audience, the president then went on to the equally important subject of al-Qaeda. Referring to the terrorist organization’s presence in Pakistan’s rugged tribal areas, the American Commander-in-Chief told the military cadets “we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear.”
On Monday, the New York Times reported what the United States intends to do about those terrorist safe havens. While the American surge in Afghanistan involves building a security environment that will allow American and NATO forces to disengage in 18 months, leaving behind an Afghan government the Taliban cannot overthrow, America’s strategy in Pakistan calls for the defeat and elimination of al Qaeda.
To this end, the Times reports that already a month before the West Point speech General James R. Jones, Obama’s national security advisor, delivered the Pakistanis “a blunt message,” telling them to become more aggressive in going after the Taliban and al Qaeda or the Americans would do it themselves.
“I think they read our intentions accurately,” a senior administration official told The Times.
America’s NATO allies also share her frustration concerning Pakistan’s continuing inability to deal with the Taliban/al Qaeda menace based on its territory. Almost all the terrorist plots directed against their countries, and against others around the world, have their roots in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Showing this frustration, British Prime Gordon Brown recently accused the Pakistani government of not doing enough to capture Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, telling the Pakistanis to “take out” the al Qaeda leaders.
“We have got to ask ourselves why, eight years after September 11, nobody has been able to spot or detain or get close to Osama bin Laden,” said Brown.
Showing his seriousness about going after al Qaeda in Pakistan, even before his appearance at West Point, Obama approved an expansion of drone attacks. It is reported drones will now, for the first time, fly over the southern part of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. This area contains Quetta, the provincial capital, where Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar is believed to be hiding with other leading Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda members.
Drones have been a very effective weapon against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Many valuable mid-level and senior commanders have been lost to the Hellfire missile, affecting the terrorist organizations’ level of operations. In the 50 drone strikes so far this year in Pakistan’s tribal areas, it is estimated about 400 enemy operatives have been killed.
Another unilateral action the administration is considering if the Pakistanis fail to measure up to expectations is a resumption of American Special Forces raids into Pakistan. These were halted after a covert cross border operation in 2008 became publicised, causing a backlash in Pakistani public opinion.
These new measures signal a new direction in the war that will most likely see the conflict shift substantially in the coming months from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Observers see this as the war’s next phase, since it makes no sense, they say, to pull out of Afghanistan, leaving al Qaeda undefeated. The objective of the 2001 Afghanistan invasion, after all, was to take away Osama bin Laden’s strategic base in the region, a mission that will only be accomplished when his Pakistani sanctuaries are eliminated.
Accordingly, American and NATO forces want the Pakistanis to launch offensives against the Taliban in North Waziristan, principally against the Haqqani network that organizes attacks against allied soldiers in Afghanistan, and against the Taliban groups around Quetta. The Western forces are dissatisfied that Pakistan has not done so already. The Pakistani government, however, is reluctant to act, since it knows such military actions would unleash even more terrorist bombings than the country is currently experiencing.
Since October, about 400 people have died in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, for which the Pakistani Taliban has mostly taken credit. Spectacular bombings of mosques, markets and government buildings, designed to scare the civilian population, show the government’s weakness and pressure the authorities to call off its military offensive in Waziristan, have become almost a common occurrence. Three such bloody attacks took place last Monday and Tuesday alone.
It also does not help Pakistan’s image as a base for world terrorism when, in response to Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s accusation, Pakistani Prime Minister Youssef Gilani denied that Osama bin Laden is even in his country.
“I doubt the information which you are giving is correct because I don’t think Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan,” said Gilani.
But one analyst believes it is only by putting such military pressure, as the Americans and NATO countries are advocating, on the Taliban that it will finally “divorce” itself from al Qaeda. In turn, this will make it much easier for both the American and Pakistani forces to destroy Osama bin Laden and his organization. If Pakistan refuses, however, to go along with this strategy, then one can expect some of the 30,000 American troops involved in the surge to be put to use not only in Afghanistan, but also against al Qaeda forces inside Pakistan, Pakistani sovereignty be damned.
President Obama said in his West Point speech the United States “must deny al Qaeda a safe haven.” To the president’s credit, it appears he firmly intends to carry out this resolution since he knows withdrawing from Afghanistan without having done so would constitute defeat.