Striking Al-Qaeda’s New Base

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign-policy authorities about the United States, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan.

How likely is a U.S. incursion into the tribal areas in the next two years?
65% Somewhat likely

“I say ‘somewhat likely’ because it would be very difficult for a president to say no to an attack if the intelligence community ‘assured’ him of the target. The president would fear being accused of not having the guts and missing an opportunity.”

“And more so if the Musharraf government falls leading to instability and/or a radical takeover.”

“Any incursion is likely to be triggered by better-than-usual intelligence about the location and activities of senior jihadist leaders.”

“As al-Qaeda gets stronger in Pakistan and as its leaders elevate their public profile in the shadow of Musharraf’s troubles, the pressure on the administration to do ‘something’ will be high, and it is possible that they will carry out some action to respond to domestic pressure during an election year.”

“Somewhat likely, but it will be more likely if top al-Qaeda leadership can be located there.”

“I would rate the chances of the strategy outlined above as having a 75% chance of success if the U.S. is willing to pursue it patiently and steadily on the diplomatic front. That would then allow us to use our troops for such an incursion, but under international auspices.”

“While this is acceptable to undertake, it’s vital we get the intelligence right. For the problem in the war on terror is our ‘friends’ far more than our ‘enemies’; this means Pakistan above all. We should do nothing to undermine Musharraf, flawed as he is.”

“[But it is] more apt to be [a] covert operation with Pakistani coordination.”

“Somewhat unlikely. It would either be from 15,000 feet and ineffectual or on the ground and messy (also unpopular with many Army commanders). Having made similar mistakes already, of course, we might very well indulge in this one too. But I think it more likely that, among the bad choices available to the Bush administration, they will prefer to strike Iran.”

“What does ‘incursion’ mean? If [it means] a predator [flying overhead] and shooting or special forces dropping in and then leaving, I bet is happening already. If it means a brigade [moving in], I put the chances at 30%.”

“The National Intelligence Estimate made clear that there is a growing threat coming from these areas, making action more likely. At the same time, gaining actionable intelligence will continue to be very difficult.”

“It will depend first on whether bin Laden and or Zawahiri’s locations are firmly identified and that a snatch-and-grab or hard takedown options are feasible. It will also depend on whether there is a successful al-Qaeda terrorist strike in the United States or against an American target overseas. Last year, for instance, if the London plot against the airliners had succeeded, the United States wouldn’t have bombed Leeds or London, but Peshawar or Lahore. This, of course, may have been exactly what al-Qaeda intended or indeed wanted us to do.”

18% Highly likely

“Indeed, [it is] almost inevitable if a terrorist strike in the United States is shown persuasively to have been planned in the tribal areas. In that event, the pressure to intervene would be enormous, just as the pressure to intervene in Afghanistan was irresistible after 9/11. Indeed, a major reason why Bin Laden in all likelihood hides there is that we are not there, just as we were not present in Afghanistan in the years before 2001. As with Afghanistan, all of this would change if Bin Laden pulled off another terrorist spectacular.”

“We are doing it already, just covertly.”

17% Highly unlikely

“I would say it is possible, but not likely. What would make it likely is if the U.S. were attacked by a group using those areas as a base.”

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