A Preeminent Threat to National Security

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that Western Pakistan has become a safe haven for terrorists plotting “to undermine Pakistan” a nuclear power, to kill Western soldiers and to attack their homelands. That area became a US national security concern when al Qaeda terror leader Osama bin Laden escaped there in 2001 but so far our strategy to shutdown that safe haven has failed which has prompted the GAO to call for a new approach.

Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is a vast unpoliced mountainous border region dominated by extremists harbored by the radically independent Pashtun tribes, whose territory extends into Afghanistan. It is one of Pakistan’s poorest agricultural regions with high unemployment, little infrastructure, a 17 percent literacy rate and a fundamentalist Islamic system. It is still governed under legal structures dating from the region’s colonial period.   

The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) concludes in his 2008 Annual Threat Assessment that the resurgence of al Qaeda terrorists in the FATA poses a “…preeminent threat to US national security.” That assessment states that al Qaeda is using its Pakistani safe haven to put together “…another attack against America” which is “…designed to produce mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the population.”

The DNI states that FATA-based terrorists pose a threat for Pakistan as well. Recently, FATA-based terrorists have increased suicide attacks against Pakistan’s military and have sponsored assassinations like that of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The FATA-based terrorists will threaten all of Pakistan if not defeated. 

The GAO indicates that the US has relied principally on the Pakistani military to address the FATA problem. America has paid Islamabad $5.8 billion to clean-up that region and most of those funds went to pay 120,000 military and paramilitary forces deployed to the FATA. Unfortunately, in spite of Pakistan’s efforts, al Qaeda has regenerated its ability to attack the US and has succeeded in establishing a safe haven.

A senior officer with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan who is familiar with the FATA explained that the Pakistani forces are not up to the task of establishing control. They tend to get tied down to static positions, explained the officer, and refuse to pursue the terrorists. They are “…overmatched by the insurgents” which means they lack counterinsurgency training and sufficient equipment. He explained that these shortfalls suggest why the Pakistani government routinely “makes deals” with the insurgents which result in the status quo. The GAO places the blame closer to home, however.

According to the GAO, the anarchy in the FATA stems from the lack of a comprehensive plan “…for meeting US national security goals” as stipulated by the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (2003). GAO recommends Congress require the government to draft a plan that addresses all elements of national power — diplomatic, military, intelligence, development assistance, economic, and law enforcement support. 

The White House claims this is already happening and there are plenty of plans on the books. “The United States is dealing with the terrorist threat in Pakistan through a variety of means across the political, economic and security fronts,” Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said.

Whether the White House is truly doing all it can is perhaps suspect. But the GAO ought to recognize that even the best plan will fail if Pakistan is unwilling to cooperate. 

Despite whatever planning has been done, and regardless of which instruments of power have been applied, the United States has not managed to convince Pakistan to clean out the terrorists. 

Understandably, the US would like to pursue al Qaeda and Taliban escaping into the region from Afghanistan but as one high-ranking military official said, “There’s no way we’re going to put a brigade in the FATA region. Pakistan is a sovereign nation and it’s up to Pakistan to make the call on if they want foreign forces in their nation.” It’s an inherent contradiction that Pakistan is too sensitive about its sovereignty to allow the US to help in the FATA but not too sensitive to cede sovereignty to terrorists.

The frustration associated with Pakistan’s safe haven has prompted presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama to say "If we have actionable intelligence on al Qaeda operatives, including [Osama] bin Laden, and [Pakistan’s] President Musharraf cannot act, then we should," Obama said. "That’s just common sense."

It is common sense for our forces on the ground as well. "The center of gravity is on the other side of the border," a U.S. intelligence official said. "The weight of the organization is on one side, inside Pakistan. That doesn’t preclude our concerns or the ability for [al Qaeda] to mount operational attacks on our coalition forces inside Afghanistan."

Short of going into the FATA, the best Western militaries can do to impede the flow of terrorists is to increase force levels to plug some of the infiltration routes along the region’s 373 rugged miles of border with Afghanistan. That’s in part why General Dan McNeill, the then-ISAF commander, asked for and was granted two more brigades to secure southern Afghanistan beginning in 2009. 

But more troops in Afghanistan won’t solve the long-term safe haven problem. The nagging question is how do we deny FATA as a safe haven for extremists without violating Pakistan’s sovereignty? Here is a start.

We need to build up the capability of the Pakistani frontier corps. We must train and educate their officer corps regarding counterinsurgency operations and provide them with better equipment. We should convince the Pakistani government that its biggest threat is not next door in India but radical Islam. That shift will give the FATA effort a much higher priority and perhaps result in more Western assistance inside the region.

The source of radicalism, Saudi-funded Islamic madrasses (Islamic schools), must be shuttered. The loss of Saudi funding will require alternative programs, which must be part of the GAO’s proposed comprehensive plan.

The biggest challenge won’t be part of the GAO’s proposed comprehensive plan. We need courageous leadership like that displayed by President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War. He recognized that Russia’s threat would end only when there was a fundamental change in the Soviet system. His strategy of economic warfare forced that change and exposed the bankruptcy of communist ideology. Today, we need Reaganesque leadership that exposes the bankruptcy of radical Islamic ideology and then it too will begin to crumble. 

On September 20, 2001, President Bush declared a Reaganesque policy when he told the nation, “We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." 

This policy needs to be dusted off and used with Pakistan in concert with the GAO’s comprehensive plan. Islamabad must be given the choice — decide whether you are “…with us, or … with the terrorists.” Working together we can close the FATA and get on with the serious work of stabilizing the region.