A new report from the Government Accountability Office, the independent, nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, exposes a dangerous strategic failure on the part of this administration to combat and defeat the Al Qaeda network. The report states, “The United States has not met its national security goals to destroy terrorist threats and close the safe haven” in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. “No comprehensive plan for meeting U.S. national security goals in the FATA has been developed,” it continues.
This administration failed to create a comprehensive plan despite warnings by top intelligence, military, and civilian officials that FATA poses one of the greatest national security threats to the U.S. homeland.
Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Michael Hayden last month described Al Qaeda safe havens as a “clear and present danger” to the United States. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen estimated that “if I were going to pick the next attack to hit the United States, it would come out of the FATA.” And Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell testified in his Annual Threat Assessment that Al Qaeda has “retained or regenerated key elements of its capability, including top leadership, operational mid-level lieutenants, and de facto safe haven in Pakistan’s border area with Afghanistan, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or the FATA.” Even Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker acknowledged in April that Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border represents the greatest strategic threat to the United States.
Americans should be deeply concerned about this threat and the absence of a comprehensive U.S. government strategy. Militant groups have entered the FATA’s ungoverned, undeveloped spaces. While the extent of their cooperation and collaboration varies, and membership among groups occasionally overlaps, militants appear to fall into four categories:
- Al Qaeda: As Director McConnell and others in the intelligence community have repeatedly warned, the central headquarters of Al Qaeda are now based in the FATA. Al Qaeda’s cadres are primarily foreigners from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the greater Middle East.
- Afghan Taliban: The leadership shura councils of the original Afghan Taliban are believed to be clustered in North Waziristan (as well as Peshawar and Quetta, in Pakistan proper), where they direct military operations against U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces.
- Pakistani Taliban: The Pakistani Taliban has emerged as a powerful and destabilizing force within Pakistan since its early coalescence in 2005 and formal establishment in December 2007. Led by Baitullah Mehsud, the group has been blamed by Pakistani officials for a string of suicide bombings, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and other attacks against the government of Pakistan.
- Other militant groups: Other groups have gravitated to the region, including Kashimiri militant organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, and young militants radicalized by the summer 2007 seige of the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad.
Just as Al Qaeda created a base in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban in the 1990s, these militant groups, including Al Qaeda’s contemporary incarnation, have taken advantage of FATA in this decade to consolidate their operations and export violence outward nationally, regional, and globally. Suicide bombings in Pakistan killed over 1500 civilians in 2007. There have been over 20 attacks since the beginning of 2008, including high profile attacks on Pakistani military officials, a pro-government tribal council, and the Federal Investigation Agency in Lahore. The conflict in Afghanistan has also escalated dramatically in the past two years, with the usage of suicide bombings as a tactic of the insurgency jumping five-fold between 2005 and 2006.
Many believe this escalation is due to the existence of a safehaven in Pakistan, where Afghan Taliban can flee, closely intermingle with other militant groups, raise money, and train. Furthermore, the recent disruption of terrorist attacks in Denmark, Germany, and Spain have all revealed links to terrorist training camps situated in FATA. “In my opinion,” Spanish counterterrorism magistrate Baltasar Garzôn told the New York Times following the breakup of an alleged bombing operation in February 2008, “the jihadi threat from Pakistan is the biggest emerging threat we are facing in Europe. Pakistan is an ideological and training hotbed for jihadists, and they are being exported here.”
The extremism and militancy in FATA are rooted in political exclusion, geographic isolation, and poverty. It is the most underdeveloped area in Pakistan—literacy rates for both sexes in 2007 are estimated at 17 percent (only 3 percent of women are literate), compared to 43 percent nationally. Infant mortality rates in 2006 were 135 out of 1000 births, compared to 69 out of 1000 for the country at large. And for many years, it was state policy to fund militant groups in this area. It is widely alleged that elements of the Pakistani intelligence community continue to support the Afghan Taliban and Kashmiri militant groups.
Yet as the GAO report indicates, the United States has attempted to address the threat in FATA largely through the Pakistani military, not recognizing that the problems of FATA will not be solved by military means alone. The resources allocated remain grossly out of balance. The overwhelming majority—96 percent—of U.S. spending in the FATA during fiscal years 2002-2007 went to military expenditures. Only 1 percent of spending—approximately $40 million in USAID money—went to development assistance during this time frame. Most U.S. spending to Pakistan has gone to “Coalition Support Funds,” which reimburse the Pakistani army for operations it says it has carried out in the region, but there has been little oversight or accountability for the disbursement of these funds.
A debate is now raging in Pakistan, the United States, and around the world about how to address this threat. Despite the little time he has remaining in office, President Bush needs to ensure that a comprehensive plan is developed immediately and that it is adequately resourced. As the GAO report notes, “The President of the United States has primary responsibility to ensure that his national security strategy is carried out effectively.”
As the U.S. government moves forward in creating a comprehensive approach, it should consider the following six strategic guideposts:
Allow the Pakistani government to take the lead. The United States will have to conduct a dangerous balancing act in FATA, recognizing that it has immediate security concerns located in FATA while also giving Pakistan’s leadership the space to maneuver. Explicit U.S. intervention will discredit Pakistan’s leaders and policies and exacerbate fears of U.S. meddling. Pakistan’s leaders recognize that there is a problem in FATA, and they must be allowed to conduct their own strategy. The new coalition government, and especially the Awami National Party leadership, offers a new opportunity for a shift in a failed counterterrorism strategy.
Plan for the long-term. The factors in FATA contributing to militancy and extremism are rooted in long-standing problems in the region, including physical isolation, political marginalization, and state policy of both under-investing in the area and supporting violent groups. While the threat is dangerous now, the problems cannot be solved immediately. Attempting to create quick change through military action will only create more hatred of the United States, support for militant groups, and violence within and outside of Pakistan.
Throw support behind greater political integration of FATA. The United States should encourage and support efforts by the Pakistani government to consult intensively with the local stakeholders to integrate FATA into the rest of Pakistan. The Political Parties Act, which governs the registration and organization of political parties, does not exist in FATA, which prevents mainstream secular parties from mobilizing in these areas. This Act should be extended to FATA. The U.S. government should also encourage efforts by the Pakistani leadership to remove the Frontier Crimes Regulation, whose anachronistic elements include collective punishment and enable Taliban critiques on the provision of justice in Pakistan.
Develop closer relationships with Pakistan’s political leaders and civil society. The U.S. government needs to begin moving beyond a narrow focus on President Musharraf and begin developing contacts with Pakistan’s new leadership, judiciary, and civil society. The United States must reach out to the Pakistani people in ways that begin to erode their distrust of the United States.
Use caution in supporting the Frontier Corps. The United States must be careful in relying too much on the Frontier Corps in Pakistan. The military unit has important strengths in combating militant groups in FATA, such as local language skills, familiarity with the terrain, and the fact they are mostly Pashtun. Yet Frontier Corps members also may have ties to militants in the area, as they were used by the Pakistani government to train the Taliban in the 1990s. The United States must work with political authorities and the local law enforcement alongside the Frontier Corps, understanding that decreasing extremism in Pakistan will require not just the use of force, but political reform.
Support development aid to Pakistan. Long-term development aid should be dramatically increased to Pakistan, including for institution building and political development. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for a long-term “democracy dividend” for Pakistan. He has proposed allocating $1.5 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan over 10 years as well as an additional $1 billion if the new government is “formed consistent with democratic principles.” Efforts such as this should be supported to move U.S.-Pakistan relations beyond their historical “transactional” nature to one of an enduring strategic partnership based on mutually shared interests.