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Pakistan: Radio Free Afghanistan -- Al-Qaeda Regroup Poses Dual Threat

(RFE/RL) July 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The attempted reopening today in Islamabad of the Red Mosque complex that saw a bloody confrontation between security forces and militant Islamic radicals on July 10-11 is a reminder of the challenges confronting Pakistan's embattled President Pervez Musharraf. The event was descending into rioting as Islamic hard-liners sought to retake the facilities.

Another reminder is taking shape in Washington, where legislators are pressing to tie U.S. aid to Pakistan's success in combating Al-Qaeda. Reuters reported today that U.S. lawmakers are nearing agreement on a bill to would make funds contingent on a crackdown on Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and other militants.

With Pakistan long a source of concern in the U.S.-led counterterrorism effort, there is also new speculation about whether the U.S. military in Afghanistan might be tempted to cross the border into Pakistan to respond to any threat. In the United States, officials have declined to rule out direct strikes against Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistani territory, angering some Pakistanis.

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The debate follows three shocks that reverberated in swift succession in Pakistan in the span of less than two weeks in July. First, more than 300 people died in the storming of Islamabad's Red Mosque and subsequent revenge attacks. Then Al-Qaeda's number-two man, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged a holy war against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. And last week, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate described Al-Qaeda as having regrouped and refortified itself in Pakistan's tribal belt.

Militants 'Much Stronger'

Zahid Hussain is a senior Pakistani journalist and analyst who recently published a book on Islamist militancy since the attacks on the United States in September 2001. He told RFA that the Al-Qaeda network has been operating in Pakistan for a long time and has strengthened itself over the past six years.

"Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are much stronger and they have extended their network largely because of the support they are getting from the outlawed [Pakistani Islamist] militant groups," Hussain said. "In fact, the militants Islamist groups that were outlawed by President Pervez Musharraf in 2002 disintegrated into small cells and now they work as an extension of Al-Qaeda's network in Pakistan. Some of the planning for the attacks on Western countries had emanated from Pakistan. Some arrests have been made. But if you look, actually their capacity to attack has not [been] completely removed."

"Some arrests have been made. But if you look, actually their capacity to attack has not completely [been] removed."

Most observers agree that Musharraf's efforts to confront or contain militants have met with limited success. Critics say they've left Al-Qaeda and Taliban elements in control of large swaths of the borderlands, from which militants can extend their reach in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

"North and South Waziristan has really become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban," Hussain said. "The [Pakistani] government had been carrying out an operation for two years (2004-06) before reaching a cease-fire with the militants in North Waziristan in September of last year, but that 10-month truce was always tentative. After the truce there was a marked increase in attacks on the other side of the border, in Afghanistan. So the peace agreement gave Pakistan a period of respite, but it never resolved the problem."

Some Western analysts have argued that President Musharraf is allowing an Al-Qaeda presence in Pakistan in order to prolong his leadership.

Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan specialist at Washington's Middle East Institute, suggests the reality might be rather complicated.

"I believe that allowing the threat to be visible has been in Musharraf's interest," Weinbaum said. "However, certainly he could not have wanted it to progress as it has. It's one thing to be able to turn to the U.S. and the international community and say, 'You see, don't push me too hard because you see this is what I'm confronting and these are the elements that are going to succeed if I'm not here.' [But] right now the kind of extremist development that we see in Pakistan really does threaten the [Pakistani] army [and] the state -- and that in no way can be seen as a positive for Musharraf."

Much At Stake

The United States has given Pakistan some $10 billion in assistance since September 2001. The bulk of this has been to reimburse Islamabad for military operations against Al-Qaeda in the border region.

But some analysts warned that U.S. support has strengthened Musharraf's military-led government at the expense of a more democratic political order that might ultimately help curb extremism and militancy among Pakistan's 160 million people.

Peter Bergen is a terrorism analyst and author of a biography of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin. He said he thinks President George W. Bush's administration should take a hard look at its counterterrorism cooperation with Islamabad.

"I think the United States needs to be a little more firm about the need for the return to civilian rule," Bergen said. "President Bush has been pretty silent on that. Other people in his administration keep supporting Musharraf, but the larger question is bigger than just one person. The return to civilian rule is important for Pakistan's long-term viability as a successful state. There are other things that the United States and Pakistan have been talking about: One is putting more reconstruction money into the tribal regions, and I think that makes a lot of sense if the money is spent in the right way."

Bergen argued that the United States should continue small-scale CIA operations inside Pakistan to hunt Al-Qaeda leaders. But he said Pakistan needs to crackdown on Taliban militants on its territory.

A 'More Serious' Effort?

"The Pakistani government also should try and go after the Taliban leadership in Quetta and Peshawar in a more serious manner," Bergen said. "And that's not something that's just in Afghanistan's interest -- that's also in the U.S. military's interest in Afghanistan and [the interest of] all the NATO countries that are participating there."

Weinbaum, however, suggested that Pakistani forces face daunting challenges in their efforts to battle Al-Qaeda. He noted that the army has already suffered significant losses in Pakistan's rugged northwestern border region, abutting the Afghan border. Violence there has resulted in more than 300 deaths in July -- roughly half of them government soldiers.

"I think it's very doubtful that the military has the capacity to deal with the threat, as [militancy] has now rooted itself in the tribal areas," Weinbaum said. "After the Red Mosque affair, there is probably more public support for more aggressive policy. But what has not changed is that the military lacks the capacity and the ability to confront groups that have taken root there. It is not capable of counterinsurgency; it doesn't have the training, the equipment, and, yes, even the motivation to really challenge that [insurgency] and be successful."

Weinbaum speculated that Musharraf's priority -- given the current state of affairs in Pakistan -- might be to contain the Al-Qaeda threat while not eliminating it altogether.

"About the best that they can do is to contain this," Weinbaum said. "A political development in Pakistan [in which] the [political] parties and Musharraf would together see a mandate to do this, I think he would be more impelled to act. But I think right now the best we can see is some response to some of the attacks. But a full-scale approach that tries to eliminate the threat that exists in the frontier [region] would incur enormous risks -- the military knows this, and they don't want to be humiliated again as they were for 2 1/2 years."

Bergen maintained that Al-Qaeda will continue operating out of Pakistan in the absence of sufficient political will and popular backing to launch large-scale attacks against its bases there.

But he also suggested that Western determination to liquidate the militant threat emanating from Pakistan could prove a tipping point if it is found to be a launching pad for a new terrorist attack.

"If there is another attack in Britain or another attack in the United States that's traceable to the tribal regions in Pakistan, then of course there would be a lot of political pressure to do something in a larger manner than has been done in the past."

(Abubakar Siddique is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)

Afghan-Pakistani Border

Afghan-Pakistani Border
EYE OF A STORM: Afghan officials first suggested that insurgents or terrorists were crossing the border from Pakistan in 2003. Relations have run hot and cold ever since. But the roots of the problem go back much further.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.