- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On a warm late-summer summer morning seven years ago today, al Qaeda terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people after hijacking four commercial planes over U.S. skies. Since that terrible day, the United States has gone on the offensive in an effort to hunt down Osama bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda operatives. In Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been followed by five years of fighting between the U.S. military and al Qaeda-linked terrorists; since the troop surge in Iraq began last year, coalition forces have routed the jihadists there, and President Bush announced this week that some U.S. troops will be diverted to Afghanistan - where the September 11 hijackers trained.

Less than a month after September 11, the United States launched a military operation that destroyed the Taliban dictatorship in Afghanistan which had provided the hijackers a sanctuary to train for the attacks on the United States. By 2004, al Qaeda was badly weakened, its forces in decline. That is no longer the case. The organization has created a new safe haven for terrorist training and indoctrination on Pakistani soil - threatening the sovereignty and freedom of both newly democratic Pakistan and the neighboring democracy of Afghanistan, where more than 30,000 U.S. troops (and more than 20,000 others from NATO countries) are fighting to ensure that that nation does not return to what it was seven years ago: a base for launching attacks against the United States.

The security situation in Pakistan is deteriorating, so much so that American officials need to consider the unthinkable - that Pakistan in a worst-case scenario could become a launching pad for another strike against this country. Before September 11, the Pakistani government was undeniably an ally of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan and al Qaeda as well. After September 11, Washington demanded that Pakistan join the U.S.-led effort against the Taliban and al Qaeda or face the consequences. The strongman at the time, President Pervez Musharraf, acceded to the U.S. demands and became an on-and-off ally of Washington.

Since September 11, Pakistan (which is also a nuclear-weapons state) has received upwards of $10 billion in U.S. aid. But Gen. Musharraf and the democratically elected government that succeeded him have had a decidedly mixed record when it comes to cooperating with U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban: On the plus side, many Pakistani soldiers have died fighting the terrorists, and Pakistani security forces have helped with the capture of terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who masterminded the September 11 attacks.

But in other ways, Pakistan aids and abets terror. U.S. officials say that Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (which played a large role in backing the Taliban dictatorship in Afghanistan prior to September 11), was behind the recent bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul. And the Pakistani government’s refusal to confront al Qaeda has helped create a de facto safe haven for the group and its allies in locations like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region of Pakistan. Last month, Ted Gistaro, the U.S. national intelligence officer for transnational threats, compared al Qaeda’s operational and organizational advantages in the FATA to those it enjoyed in Afghanistan prior to September 11. Mr. Gistaro also said that al Qaeda was training and positioning its operatives to carry out attacks in the West, probably including the United States. He said the attacks might occur using operatives who were legal residents of United States or European countries with passports that would allow them to travel here without a visa.

Unfortunately, Islamabad seems less concerned about its territory being used for an attack on the United States than about placating radical domestic Islamist groups. As the U.S. military steps up its operations against these terrorist networks inside Pakistan, that country’s politicians try to out-demagogue one another in denouncing the United States for killing terrorists. Seven years after September 11, Pakistan’s internal decline could have catastrophic consequences for the United States.

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