By Sridhar Krishnaswami
February 6, 2008
Al Qaeda and Taliban elements which have moved beyond Pakistan’s tribal areas are threatening the country’s survival, a top United States intelligence official has said in an unusually strong warning, asserting that only the army had the ‘strength’ to check the menace.
“I think the most significant thing in the recent situation is the threat has moved into Pakistan proper to threaten the very existence of the (state). Pakistan has now recognised that this is an existential threat to their very survival,” director of national intelligence Admiral Michael McConnell said.
He said the Pakistani leadership was taking steps to be more aggressive in getting control of the situation, with regard to not only Al Qaeda, but also the militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
His comments came after senior law makers, cutting across party lines, expressed serious concern at the terror threat coming out of Pakistan, especially in the FATA of the north.
“The militancy emanating from the tribal areas has grown so strong that it has spread to the settled areas of Pakistan, in the North-West Frontier province, but also reaching into the heart of Pakistan’s cities, including Islamabad. The most egregious example of this, of course, is Benazir Bhutto,” remarked senior Republican Senator Orin Hatch.
“At what point do you believe it would be better to pronounce the current Pakistani government a complete failure in advancing security for us or even their own people? And what Pakistani institutions could successfully stand against these threats?” he asked McConnell.
“The only institution that has the strength to do what you just described is the Pakistani army,” the official said. He, however, added that the force was not adequately trained to carry out anti-insurgency operations.
“So that discussion is taking place in Pakistan now. And there will be changes in time to be more aggressive in addressing this threat,” McConnell said.
He said it was a ‘very critical time’ for the Pakistan government as the country was going through a transition to democracy. “It is a key point in Pakistani history. For the first time in their history, their legislature finished a term, and the elections are happening later this month on the 18th”.
“I’ve spoken to my counterparts in Pakistan and General Kayani, who’s chief of the army staff. I think they would agree in broad outline with your analysis,” said Gen Michael Hayden, head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Kayani speaks at the test-firing of a medium-range Shaheen-1 (Haft-IV) ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in Pakistan January 25, 2008. Kayani dismissed on Friday fears that the country’s nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic militants as the military test fired a nuclear-capable missile.
Pakistani military operations in FATA have had ‘limited effect’ on Al Qaeda, the head of the Defence Intelligence Agency Gen Michael Maples said.
“However, Pakistan recognises the threat and realises the need to develop more effective counterinsurgency capabilities to complement their conventional military,” he added.
Reiterating the state department’s view that the US was not getting enough information on top militant leadership, Admiral McConnell said, “If we had the locating information, particularly of the leadership, we would be able to carry out actions to neutralise the leadership. So that specific information we seek. We do not have it”.
In his opening statement, Senator John Rockefeller pointed out the fact that after six and a half years since September 11, 2001, the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remains at large.
“That is a source of embarrassment and concern to all of you,” he said. “Al Qaeda has used this border safe haven to reconstitute itself and launch offensive operations that threaten to undo the stability of Afghanistan and undermine, if not overthrow, the Pakistan government,” Rockefeller remarked.
Another Democrat Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana asked the intelligence community if it would strike the balance between the United States getting involved and the risk of ‘destabilising an already fairly tenuous regime’ in Pakistan.
“How do we strike that balance? And when do we conclude that, if the Pakistanis simply can’t do it by themselves, that we have to do more and essentially say, ‘Look, if you can’t do it, we’re going to have to do more, and we’re going to do what we need to do here, because we can’t afford to have a repetition of the Afghan situation’? Bayh asked.
“I think there’s more commonality of view between us and our partners that this is a threat to both of us. In the tribal area, Pakistanis were concerned about it, but the threat emanating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas was more a threat outside of Pakistan than it was to Pakistan, per se,” Gen Hayden of the CIA said.
Maples said Al Qaeda has expanded its support to the Afghan insurgency and presents an increased threat to Pakistan, while it continues to plan, support and direct transnational attacks. It has extended its operational reach through partnerships with compatible regional terrorist groups, including a continued effort to expand into Africa.
“Al Qaeda maintains its desire to possess weapons of mass destruction,” Maples said.