There is overwhelming evidence that, after the initial victories last autumn by the United States and the Northern Alliance, hundreds of Taliban and al‐Qaeda fighters fled Afghanistan to seek refuge in Pakistan’s rugged northwest frontier province. A similar pattern occurred in response to the recent U.S. offensive, Operation Anaconda.
The reality is that al‐Qaeda will never be destroyed as long as it can enjoy a de facto sanctuary in Pakistan. One of the most serious mistakes in the otherwise successful U.S. military operation in Afghanistan was the decision to trust the Pakistani government to seal the border and trap Taliban and al‐Qaeda troops. It is now clear that Pakistan failed to fulfill that task.
Given the terrain, sealing the Afghan‐Pakistani border would have been a daunting task even for the most capable military force. But it seems that the Pakistani authorities made something less than a wholehearted effort. Indeed, there is evidence that elements in Pakistan’s military, as well as the notorious Interservices Intelligence directorate (ISI), actually helped evacuate Taliban and al‐Qaeda fighters following the first U.S.-led offensive in October.
Although such treachery might seem shocking, it would be consistent with Islamabad’s track record. The Bush administration likes to tout Pakistan as an enthusiastic ally in the war on terrorism, but the regime of military dictator Pervez Musharraf is a very recent convert in that struggle. Prior to the September 11 attacks, the Pakistani government‐especially the ISI– was the chief patron of the terrorist Taliban regime in Afghanistan. And religious schools, the madrassas, in Pakistan were renowned incubators for the terrorist recruits who joined Osama bin Laden.
It would be a mistake to allow misplaced gratitude to the Musharraf regime for belatedly abandoning the Taliban to deter us from taking the war against al‐Qaeda to its next logical stage. The principal nest of terrorist vipers is not in the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, or Somalia. It is in Pakistan.
Washington should inform Musharraf that we intend to wipe out the al‐Qaeda sanctuaries in the northwest frontier province, with or without Islamabad’s permission. The reality is that the writ of Pakistan’s central government has rarely extended to that region in any case. Typically, the local tribes exercise most of the real power. Musharraf would be wise to recognize his lack of control and give the U.S. permission to take military action. If he declines to do so, the United States should make it clear that from now on we will regard Pakistan as part of the problem in the struggle against terrorism, not part of the solution, and will treat the country accordingly. The recent comment by Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar that his government was prepared to discuss allowing U.S. troops to cross the border in pursuit of al‐Qaeda suspects is an encouraging development and should be explored.
But whatever Musharraf’s ultimate decision about granting permission, the United States should not shrink from confronting al‐Qaeda in its Pakistani lair. The war against the perpetrators of the September 11 atrocities will not be successful until that mission is accomplished.