Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Shaky Pakistan Is Seen as Target of Qaeda Plots


WASHINGTON – As Taliban militants push deeper into Pakistan’s settled areas, foreign operatives of Al Qaeda who had focused on plotting attacks against the West are seizing on the turmoil to sow chaos in Pakistan and strengthen the hand of the militant Islamist groups there, according to American and Pakistani intelligence officials.

One indication came April 19, when a truck parked inside a Qaeda compound in South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, erupted in a fireball when it was struck by a C.I.A. missile. American intelligence officials say that the truck had been loaded with high explosives, apparently to be used as a bomb, and that while its ultimate target remains unclear, the bomb would have been more devastating than the suicide bombing that killed more than 50 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September.

Al Qaeda’s leaders – a predominantly Arab group of Egyptians, Saudis and Yemenis, as well as other nationalities like Uzbeks – for years have nurtured ties to Pakistani militant groups like the Taliban operating in the mountains of Pakistan. The foreign operatives have historically set their sights on targets loftier than those selected by the local militant groups, aiming for spectacular attacks against the West, but they may see new opportunity in the recent violence.

Intelligence officials say the Taliban advances in Swat and Buner, which are closer to Islamabad than to the tribal areas, have already helped Al Qaeda in its recruiting efforts. The officials say the group’s recruiting campaign is currently aimed at young fighters across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are less inclined to plan and carry out far-reaching global attacks and who have focused their energies on more immediate targets.

“They smell blood, and they are intoxicated by the idea of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former analyst for the C.I.A. who recently led the Obama administration’s policy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It remains unlikely that Islamic militants could seize power in Pakistan, given the strength of Pakistan’s military, according to American intelligence analysts. But a senior American intelligence official expressed concern that recent successes by the Taliban in extending territorial gains could foreshadow the creation of “mini-Afghanistans” around Pakistan that would allow militants even more freedom to plot attacks.

American government officials and terrorism experts said that Al Qaeda’s increasing focus on a local strategy was partly born from necessity, as the C.I.A.’s intensifying airstrikes have reduced the group’s ability to hit targets in the West. The United States has conducted 17 drone attacks so far this year, including one on Saturday, according to American officials and Pakistani news accounts, compared with 36 strikes in all of 2008.

According to a Pakistani intelligence assessment provided to The New York Times in February, Al Qaeda has adapted to the deaths of its leaders by shifting “to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups” within Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the same time, the group has intensified its recruiting, to replace its airstrike casualties.

One of Al Qaeda’s main goals in Pakistan, the assessment said, was to “stage major terrorist attacks to create a feeling of insecurity, embarrass the government and retard economic development and political progress.”

The Qaeda operatives are foreigners inside Pakistan, and experts say that the group’s leaders, like Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, appear to be wary of claiming credit for the violence in the country, possibly creating popular backlash against the group.

“They are trying to take an Arab face off this,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

“If you look at Al Qaeda as a brand, they know when to broadcast the brand, as the group has done in North Africa,” Mr. Hoffman said. “And they know when to cloak the brand, as it has done in Pakistan.”

As a result, it is difficult for American officials to assess exactly which recent attacks in Pakistan are the work of Qaeda operatives. But intelligence officials say they believe that the Marriott Hotel bombing was partly planned by Usama al-Kini, a Kenyan Qaeda operative who was killed in Pakistan by a C.I.A. drone on New Year’s Day.

According to Mr. Hoffman, Al Qaeda may be trying to achieve a separate goal: getting the C.I.A. to call off its campaign of airstrikes in the tribal areas. A wave of terrorist violence could foment so much popular discontent with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, he said, that Pakistan might then try to pressure the Obama administration to scale back its drone campaign.

For now, however, Obama administration officials say they believe that the covert airstrikes are the best tool at their disposal to strike at Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, which remains the group’s most important haven, but where large numbers of American combat forces would never be welcome.

The April 19 strike that hit what appeared to have been a truck bomb in a compound used by Al Qaeda set off an enormous secondary explosion, intelligence officials say. A second, empty truck destroyed in the same attack may also have been there to be outfitted with explosives, they say.

In another significant attack, on April 29, missiles fired from a C.I.A. Predator killed Abu Sulayman al-Jazairi, an Algerian Qaeda planner who American intelligence officials say they believe helped train operatives for attacks in Europe and the United States.

Still, officials caution that Al Qaeda has not abandoned its goal of “spectacular” attacks in the United States and Europe. According to one American counterterrorism official, the group continues to plan attacks outside its sanctuary in the tribal areas, aiming at targets in the West and elsewhere in Pakistan.

“They are opportunistic to the extent they perceive vulnerabilities with the uncertain nature of Pakistani politics and the security situation in Swat and Buner,” said the American counterterrorism official, who like other officials interviewed for this article was not authorized to speak publicly on intelligence issues. “They’re trying to exploit it.”

In meetings this past week in Washington, American and Pakistani officials discussed the possibility of limited joint operations with American Predator and Reaper drones.

Under one proposal, the United States would retain control over the firing of missiles, but it would share with the Pakistani security forces some sophisticated imagery and communications intercepts that could be relayed to Pakistani combat forces on the ground.

C.I.A. officials for months have resisted requests by Mr. Zardari to share the drone technology. In a television interview broadcast Sunday, the Pakistani leader said he would keep pressing to get his own Predator fleet.

“I’ve been asking for them, but I haven’t got a positive answer as yet,” Mr. Zardari said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“But I’m not giving up.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of drone strikes that American officials say the United States has conducted against Al Qaeda so far this year. It is 17 strikes, not 16.

Source: The New York Times

President Karzai visits Washington for second trilateral meeting

Second Trilateral Summit of Afghanistan-Pakistan-United States in Washington, DC

On Wednesday, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan met with President Zardari of Pakistan and President Obama of the United States in Washington, DC, in the second summit of the trilateral contact group established in February. The Afghan and Pakistani presidents also met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Members of the Afghan and Pakistani delegations, including Ministers of Agriculture and intelligence professionals, met with their counterparts as well.

(President Barack Obama (center) with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistan President Zardari walk along the Colonnade following a US-Afghan-PakistanTrilateral meeting in Cabinet Room May 6, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(President Barack Obama (center) with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistan President Zardari walk along the Colonnade following a US-Afghan-PakistanTrilateral meeting in Cabinet Room May 6, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Karzai arrived in Washington, DC on Monday for a four-day visit, and on Tuesday he spoke at the Brookings Institution, where he said that the fundamentals of the US-Afghanistan relationship are strong, despite reports of tension in the press. He spoke of the ambitions of Afghans to build a strong, stable country in partnership with the United States and other Western allies.

During Wednesday’s day-long summit, the Afghan delegation, which included the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Agriculture and Finance, as well as the Director of National Intelligence, met and discussed issues of security, trade, agriculture, development and justice with their Pakistani and American counterparts, and attempted to find areas of cooperation. In an important step, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding on trade-transit issues and agreed to discuss the issue further.

Much of the focus of the summit was on the shared threat from al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant extremist groups. President Obama, in his remarks after the trilateral meeting, said, “The security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States are linked.” President Karzai expressed his commitment to fighting this threat, and to working with the Americans to improve development and governance in Afghanistan.

  1. Click here to read the transcript of the press conference held with President Karzai, President Zardari and US Secretary of State Clinton.
  2. Click here for video of the press conference.
  3. Click here to read the statement delivered by President Obama after his trilateral meeting with President Karzai and President Zardari.
  4. Click here for video of President Obama’s remarks.
  5. Click here to read the press briefing on the trilateral meeting by National Security Advisor Jim Jones.
  6. Click here to read the statement delivered by President Hamid Karzai at the Brookings Institution.

On Washington Pakistan Overshadows Afghanistan on U.S. Agenda


WASHINGTON – When President Obama announced his new strategy in March for dealing with the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan, he declared that America’s once-grandiose goals in the region should be narrowed to taking aim at Al Qaeda. To get the job done, he was already sending upwards of 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and he promised to pour billions of dollars in aid into development programs in the region.

There was only one hitch: Al Qaeda doesn’t really live in Afghanistan. It survives largely over the border in Pakistan, where American boots on the ground will never be tolerated. “This is the logical flaw in an otherwise pretty sophisticated plan,” one of the participants in the White House debate said at the time. “We have to stabilize Afghanistan. But if the goal is to take out Al Qaeda and its friends, we’re putting our troops in the wrong country.”

But only five weeks later, what seemed like a fissure in the plan – a fissure Mr. Obama himself discussed and fully understood, his aides say – has opened into a canyon. As Mr. Obama prepares to meet at the White House on Wednesday with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the agenda has been overwhelmed by the drive that insurgents inside Pakistan are mounting for control of swaths of the country.

The original intention for the meeting was to find ways to accomplish something the Pakistanis and the Afghans have never been able to engineer, no matter how hard Washington has pushed them to: A coordinated military effort to squeeze the Taliban and other insurgents on both sides of their long, wild border. Suddenly, that seems like the lesser of two urgent problems.

“The possibility is now real that we will see a jihadist state emerge in Pakistan – not an inevitable outcome, not even the most likely, but a real possibility,” said Bruce Riedel, the Brookings Institution scholar who served as the co-author of Mr. Obama’s review.

“And that is the real strategic nightmare for the United States,” he added.

Important as Afghanistan is to the United States, he said, the events of the past few weeks focused American minds on Pakistan’s uniquely toxic cocktail.

“It’s where the far greater strategic risks lie,” said Mr. Riedel, a former intelligence officer who has long navigated the dangerous currents of South Asia. “It has more terrorists per square mile than anyplace else on earth, and it has a nuclear weapons program that is growing faster than anyplace else on earth.”

Or, as Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it on Monday, “this isn’t about ‘can do’ any more; this is about ‘must do.’ ”

So in the land of no good options, what are some of the possibilities that Mr. Obama can explore? What can he accomplish sitting down with a weak Pakistani leader who spent years dodging charges of corruption, and whose early support in Washington has quickly soured? Or with an even weaker Afghan leader who was once a favorite of the United States – both for his elegance and for his eloquence – but who many the Obama administration would now like to see eased out of office in the coming election?

Here are a few possibilities to watch for:

Speed Up Plan A The core of Mr. Obama’s strategy was to bet on a long-term solution: Retraining the Pakistani military to become an effective counterinsurgency force and pour billions of dollars and plenty of manpower into real nation-building efforts on both sides of the border, but particularly in the tribal areas that have become Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds – in short, to execute the Marshall Plan for the region that President George W. Bush first talked about in March 2002 but never executed.

According to administration officials, Mr. Obama is expected to promise to unlock nearly $1 billion in aid that the United States has promised but not yet delivered, and to announce a new training program for Pakistani soldiers, probably located in Kuwait so that American trainers need not set foot on Pakistani soil. But building schools and training soldiers takes time. And with the Taliban expansion threatening the country’s main East-West highway – the highway that leads to Islamabad – it is not clear that the long-term approach will address the immediate military emergency.

Step up Predator Attacks and Covert Ground Action Last summer Mr. Bush approved a covert plan allowing United States forces, for the first time, to use remotely piloted aircraft to attack not only Al Qaeda sites, but other insurgents that threaten either Afghanistan or Pakistan. President Obama continued that policy, but every proposed strike by the Predator drones has posed a awful choice: How do you blow up a house that has suspected terrorists in the basement if it also has seven-year-olds and their mothers in the living room? The popular anger in Pakistan about the drones has reached a fever pitch.

Mr. Obama’s aides have debated inviting the Pakistanis to participate the C.I.A.’s Predator program, actively managing the missions rather just permitting them to be mounted from a not-so-secret base on Pakistani territory. But many in the administration are hesitant, because past joint operations with Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have rarely worked.

“The question is whether the Taliban’s boldness has scared the Pakistanis enough to realize that they need our help,” one national security official involved in the debate said. “We don’t know the answer to that.”

There is similar concern about sending American special forces on missions deeper into Pakisitan, for fear of the political reaction if they are discovered operating inside Pakistan’s borders. (One of Mr. Bush’s aides put this problem pithily last summer when he asked, “How do you invade an ally?”)

Make Nuclear Arms the No. 1 Concern: In public, the administration says that no matter what inroads the Taliban make in Pakistan, the country’s nuclear arsenal is secure. “The Pakistani leadership and in particular the military is very focused on this,” Admiral Mullen said on Monday.

But when not speaking on the record, intelligence and administration officials say they cannot rely on vague assurances that the weapons and the nuclear materials are locked down. They worry about a stream of intelligence suggesting sophisticated efforts by Al Qaeda and others to place their sympathizers inside the nuclear infrastructure. (Pakistani officials say they extensively screen the thousands of nuclear workers and weed out anyone suspect. But even in the United States, such programs have failed in the past.)

So some officials argue for extending the American program to help secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, pressing Pakistan to develop joint plans to evacuate those weapons if they came under threat. It is doubtful that the Pakistanis, who fear the United States has secret plans to seize the arsenal, would ever agree.

The bluntest statement of concern to date came a week ago from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with James Rosen of Fox News. “If the worst, the unthinkable, were to happen, and this advancing Taliban, encouraged and supported by Al Qaeda and other extremists, were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan,” she said.

“We can’t even contemplate that,” she added. “We cannot let this go on any further, which is why we’re pushing so hard for the Pakistanis to come together around a strategy to take their country back.”

Source: The New York Times