Striking Al-Qaeda’s New Base

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

Should the United States unilaterally go after al-Qaeda leaders and training camps in Pakistan?
50% Yes

“Under some conditions, yes—a blanket policy would be a mistake.”

“Even if such strikes strain relations with Pakistan, the United States cannot afford to let the al-Qaeda regroup and strengthen.”

“Obviously, we have to balance the need to eradicate the al-Qaeda leadership—and, finally, to kill or capture Bin Laden—against risks to the Musharraf government. But given what al-Qaeda has already done to the U.S., what it continues to do in Afghanistan and Iraq every day, and what it could do again directly against us, if we develop ‘actionable intelligence,’ we should strike.”

“But there is no need to advertise this until it is successful. It’s hard to think of a greater direct and immediate threat to the United States than this. This ought to be a no-brainer.”

“While it was a reasonable balancing of risks to give the Pakistanis the time and space to deal with the re-growth of al-Qaeda base on their territory, that time has now passed as it has become clear that they have neither the will or capability to do so. It would certainly be better to do this with stealth than with a large footprint operation, but the time for a direct response is now.”

“Yes, but only when a) there is credible intelligence that we can either kill or capture Bin Laden, Zawahiri, or other truly senior and influential al-Qaeda leaders and b) when we can also mount such an operation with a light touch and a small footprint—that is, using elite military and intelligence units and not conventional ones.”

“Only if there is actionable intelligence against individuals involved in operations against the United States and the Pakistanis are unable or unwilling to act. It can’t be ruled out, but it’s counterproductive to explicitly rule it in. In some respects, it would be better for the terrorists to think that we won’t act, since they will be less cautious.”

"As long as Pakistan believes the United States needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the United States, it will be impossible to deal with."

“But only if we have first done everything possible to get NATO and UN authorization for strikes against terrorists who have been universally condemned by UN resolutions already. In other words, our strategy should be to provide the Pakistani government with as much political cover as possible by making it clear that al Qaeda has been condemned by the entire international community and is the target of NATO forces who themselves are acting pursuant to a UN resolution in Afghanistan. Only if that strategy fails should we be prepared to take unilateral action.”

“By unilaterally, I presume you mean operationally alone. I do not think we should conduct military operations without consulting with the Pakistanis and trying to get them to tighten up control over the tribal areas.”

“Yes, when it comes to leaders. If the opportunity arises—if there is actionable intelligence—and Pakistani forces are unwilling or unable to do the job, then American forces should take such military action as is necessary to hunt down top al-Qaeda leaders. Training camps should be destroyed only in direct cooperation with Pakistani forces—or unilaterally, if there is credible intelligence that the camps are being used to do imminent harm.”  

“Yes, if Pakistan refuses to cooperate.”

“Yes, if Pakistan cannot or will not and we have actionable intelligence on high-value al-Qaeda targets.”

“It depends on [the] circumstances. We don’t want to undermine the Pakistani government, but we should not rule out unilateral action under all circumstances.”

50% No

“Unless we can be (and how could we be?) 100% sure of finding and capturing Osama Bin Laden himself, the downside—in Pakistan above all but [also] in the Muslim world at large—of being seen to trample on Pakistani sovereignty and to attack and kill Muslims in a Muslim land would be immense, with no comparable gain.”

“[It is] better at this point to seek joint operations with Pakistani forces. Unilateral operations by the United States, except in the event of a devastating terrorist strike in the United States shown to emanate from the tribal areas, would be hard to justify and [would] produce a counterproductive backlash in Pakistan.”

“No, not before emptying out and fumigating the CIA directorate of operations.”

“We must have a Pakistani face on incursions, the risk of instability in Pakistan politics is too high otherwise.”

“No, not until all support for Pakistan forces has been given to enable them to handle it.”

“No, if ‘unilaterally’ means without the cooperation of the Pakistani government. Musharraf’s own interests and the further incentives associated with the relationship with the United States make unlikely any situation in which a potential U.S. incursion offered a high payoff but was blocked by Islamabad.”

“No, unless in hot pursuit and with tacit approval of the host government.”

“I say ‘no’ because the attack depends on intelligence, and our record on reliable intelligence in such situations, is very poor. I just would be highly skeptical that we really had acquired a "legitimate" target. As much as I’d like to go get the bastards, I couldn’t count on the intelligence being right.”

“This is a hard one; [we] must push the issue and find a way to make this a bilateral effort.”

“The likelihood that such operations would make a significant impact on al-Qaeda will remain far lower than the likelihood that such operations would weaken Musharraf even more, and play into the hands of al-Qaeda.”

“Only as a last resort and with some level of transparency (consistent with operational security) to the Pakistani government.”

“Even the best planned raids and air strikes come with probabilities and risks attached, but we should have learned that American unilateralism, especially when other people die, invariably comes with a heavy price tag.”

PARTICIPANTS (41): Graham Allison, Ronald Asmus, Samuel Berger, Daniel Blumenthal, Stephen Bosworth, Daniel Byman, Warren Christopher, Wesley Clark, Ivo Daalder, Douglas Feith, Jay Garner, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, Laura Holgate, John Hulsman, Robert Hunter, Tony Judt, Robert Kagan, David Kay, Andrew Krepinevich, Charles Kupchan, John Lehman, James Lindsay, Edward Luttwak, John McLaughlin, William Nash, Joseph Nye, Carlos Pascual, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Kenneth Pollack, Joseph Ralston, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman, Anne-Marie Slaughter, James Steinberg, Shibley Telhami, Anthony Zinni.

Because of rounding, totals do not always add up to 100%.

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