Can US woo Al Qaeda's own haven?
In tribal Pakistan, some antiterror strategies are hung up on logistics.
Despite the blustery talk from the White House about "all options being on the table" for dealing with Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the thrust of US plans is more about winning "hearts and minds" and less about unilateral military intervention.Skip to next paragraph
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On State Department and Pentagon drawing boards are plans to spend more than $1 billion over five years on a campaign in the remote tribal areas, where the latest National Intelligence Estimate says Al Qaeda has rebuilt its organization. The US effort is in part an economic development program and in part a military plan, similar to that in Iraq's Anbar Province, which is aimed at winning over local tribesmen in the battle with Al Qaeda. To work, the US effort would rely heavily on cooperation with the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
Despite support for the broad goal of denying Al Qaeda and Islamist extremism a sanctuary in these areas of Pakistan, questions remain in Congress and among experts over specifics – such as who would receive the sums of money, who would be accountable for them, and how to ensure they wouldn't fall into the wrong hands. As one example, Congress has held up approving the millions of dollars the administration seeks for training and equipping the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The idea would be to turn the corps against Al Qaeda, much as the US military in Iraq has forged alliances with Sunni tribes to take on Al Qaeda in Iraq. But Congress so far has balked at the Pakistan plan because of qualms over the tribesmen's allegiance and over funding fighters who are not part of the country's armed forces.
"The first order of business ... is to find a friend and then try to drive a wedge between these new friends and the groups you are really aiming at," says Daniel Markey, a Pakistan specialist and former State Department Policy Planning Staff member. "The question is how quickly you can bring them on board [for] a fight against a threat you face right now."
In many ways, the plans for Pakistan's tribal areas raise the same questions the US faces in other fronts in the war on terror: from how to win hearts and minds and what long-term impact military operations might have, to whom to choose as partners and how much the US can depend on the governments of key countries.
"The US has the potential and interest to help Pakistan stay on a course to stability and prosperity, but it also has the potential to dislodge it from that course," says Craig Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's really the central question of the war on terror: How do we protect ourselves while not making conditions over there worse?"
Congress seems ready to apply the hearts-and-minds approach to Pakistan's FATA, but not without reservations. "We're generally supportive of doing more in these regions, but it's a problem of implementation," says a congressional staffer with expertise on the topic but who was not authorized to speak publicly. "Whenever we've asked [the administration] for more information, there's a footnote at the end – implementation to be determined."