Late last year, top Bush administration officials decided to take a step they had long resisted. They drafted a secret plan to authorize the Pentagon's Special Operations forces to launch missions into the snow-capped mountains of Pakistan to capture or kill top leaders of al-Qaida.
Intelligence reports for more than a year had been streaming in about Osama bin Laden's terror network rebuilding in the Pakistani tribal areas, a problem that had been exacerbated by years of missteps in Washington and the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, sharp policy disagreements, and turf battles between U.S. counterterrorism agencies.
The new plan, outlined in a highly classified Pentagon order, was designed to eliminate some of those battles. And it was meant to pave an easier path into the tribal areas for U.S. commandos, who for years have bristled at what they see as Washington's risk-averse attitude toward Special Operations missions inside Pakistan. They also argue that catching bin Laden will come only by capturing some of his senior lieutenants alive.
But more than six months later, the Special Operations forces are still waiting for the green light. The plan has been held up in Washington by the very disagreements it was meant to eliminate. A senior Defense Department official said there was “mounting frustration” in the Pentagon at the continued delay.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush committed the nation to a “war on terrorism” and made the destruction of bin Laden's network the top priority of his presidency. But it is increasingly clear that the Bush administration will leave office with al-Qaida having successfully relocated its base from Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal areas, where it has rebuilt much of its ability to attack from the region and broadcast its messages to militants around the world.
A recent U.S. airstrike killing Pakistani troops has only inflamed tensions along the mountain border and added to tensions between Washington and Pakistan's new government.
The makings of a haven
The story of how al-Qaida, Arabic for “the base,” has gained a new haven is in part a story of U.S. accommodation to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, whose advisers played down the terrorist threat. It is also a story of how the White House shifted its sights, beginning in 2002, from counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to preparations for the war in Iraq.
Just as it had on Sept. 10, 2001, al-Qaida now has a band of terror camps from which to plan and train for attacks against Western targets, including the United States. Officials say the new camps are smaller than the ones the group used prior to 2001. However, despite dozens of U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan since 2002, one retired CIA officer estimated that the makeshift training compounds now have as many as 2,000 Arab and Pakistani militants, up from several hundred three years ago.
Publicly, senior U.S. and Pakistani officials have said that the creation of an al-Qaida haven in the tribal areas was in many ways inevitable – that the lawless badlands where ethnic Pashtun tribes have resisted government control for centuries were a natural place for a dispirited terror network to find refuge. The U.S. and Pakistani officials also blame a disastrous cease-fire brokered between the Pakistani government and militants in 2006.
Hamstrung by disagreements
But more than four dozen interviews in Washington and Pakistan tell another story. U.S. intelligence officials say that the al-Qaida hunt in Pakistan, code-named Operation Cannonball by the CIA in 2006, was often undermined by bitter disagreements within the Bush administration and within the intelligence agency, including about whether U.S. commandos should launch ground raids inside the tribal areas.
Inside the CIA, the fights included clashes between the agency's outposts in Islamabad and Kabul, Afghanistan. There were also battles between field officers and the counterterrorism center at CIA headquarters, whose preference for carrying out raids remotely, via Predator missile strikes, was derided by officers in the Islamabad station as the work of “boys with toys.”
An early arrangement that allowed U.S. commandos to join Pakistani units on raids inside the tribal areas was halted in 2003 after protests in Pakistan. Another combat mission that came within hours of being launched in 2005 was scuttled because some CIA officials in Pakistan questioned the accuracy of the intelligence, and because aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believed that the mission force had become too large.
Current and former military and intelligence officials said that the war in Iraq consistently diverted resources and high-level attention from the tribal areas.
Differing views on Musharraf
Until recent elections pushed Musharraf off center stage in Pakistan, senior Bush administration officials consistently praised his cooperation in the al-Qaida hunt.
Beginning shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Musharraf had allowed U.S. forces to use Pakistani bases to support the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, while Pakistani intelligence services worked closely with the CIA in tracking down al-Qaida operatives.
But from their vantage point in Afghanistan, the picture looked different to U.S. Special Operations forces, who saw signs that the militants whom the Americans had driven out of Afghanistan were effectively regrouping on the Pakistani side of the border.
The fact that the Pentagon order authorizing a Special Operations campaign remains unsigned reflects the bureaucratic fighting that persists, particularly from State Department officials opposed to any change that would allow military missions to be launched without the approval of the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad.
With al-Qaida operatives now described in intelligence reports as deeply entrenched in the tribal areas and immersed in the civilian population, there is also a view among some military and CIA officials that the opportunity for decisive U.S. action against the militants may have been lost.