September 30, 2010

WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?:

Obama: 'We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan' (Bob Woodward, 9/29/10, Washington Post)

Fears about Pakistan had been driving President Obama's national security team for more than a year. Obama had said toward the start of his fall 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review that the more pressing U.S. interests were really in Pakistan, a nuclear power with a fragile civilian government, a dominant military and an intelligence service that sponsored terrorist groups.

Not only did al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban operate from safe havens within Pakistan, but - as U.S. intelligence officials had repeatedly warned Obama - terrorist groups were recruiting Westerners whose passports would allow them to move freely in Europe and North America.

Safe havens would no longer be tolerated, Obama had decided. "We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan," he declared during an Oval Office meeting on Nov. 25, 2009, near the end of the strategy review. The reason to create a secure, self-governing Afghanistan, he said, was "so the cancer doesn't spread there."

Jones and Panetta had gone to Pakistan to tell Zardari that Obama wanted four things to help prevent a terrorist attack on U.S. soil: full intelligence sharing, more reliable cooperation on counterterrorism, faster approval of visas for U.S. personnel traveling to Pakistan and, despite past refusals, access to airline passenger data.

If, God forbid, the SUV had blown up in Times Square, Jones told Zardari, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Should a future attempt be successful, Obama would be forced to do things that Pakistan would not like. "No one will be able to stop the response and consequences," the security adviser said. "This is not a threat, just a statement of political fact."

Jones did not give specifics about what he meant. The Obama administration had a "retribution" plan, one of the most sensitive and secretive of all military contingencies. The plan called for bombing about 150 identified terrorist camps in a brutal, punishing attack inside Pakistan.

Wait a second, Zardari responded. If we have a strategic partnership, why in the face of a crisis like the one you're describing would we not draw closer together rather than have this divide us?

Zardari believed that he had already done a great deal to accommodate his strategic partner, at some political risk. He had allowed CIA drones to strike al-Qaeda and other terrorist camps in parts of Pakistan, prompting a public outcry about violations of Pakistani sovereignty. He had told CIA officials privately in late 2008 that any innocent deaths from the strikes were the cost of doing business against senior al-Qaeda leaders. "Kill the seniors," Zardari had said. "Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me."

As part of the partnership, the Pakistani military was billing the United States more than $2 billion a year to combat extremists operating in the remote areas near the Afghan border. But that money had not prevented elements of the Pakistani intelligence service from backing the two leading Afghan Taliban groups responsible for killing American troops in Afghanistan.

"You can do something that costs you no money," Jones said. "It may be politically difficult, but it's the right thing to do if you really have the future of your country in mind. And that is to reject all forms of terrorism as a viable instrument of national policy inside your borders."

"We rejected it," Zardari responded.

Jones and Panetta had heard such declarations before. But whatever Pakistan was doing with the many terrorist groups operating inside its borders, it wasn't good or effective enough. For the past year, that country's main priority was taking on its homegrown branch of the Taliban, a network known as Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP.

Panetta pulled out a "link chart," developed from FBI interviews and other intelligence, that showed how TTP had assisted the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad.

"Look, this is it," Panetta told Zardari. "This is the network. Leads back here." He traced it out with his finger. "And we're continuing to pick up intelligence streams that indicate TTP is going to conduct other attacks in the United States."

This was a matter of solid intelligence, Panetta said, not speculation.

Jones and Panetta then turned to the disturbing intelligence about Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group behind the horrific 2008 Mumbai attacks that had killed 175, including six Americans.

Pakistani authorities are holding the commander of the Mumbai attacks, Jones said, but he is not being adequately interrogated and "he continues to direct LeT operations from his detention center." Intelligence shows that Lashkar-e-Taiba is threatening attacks in the United States and that the possibility "is rising each day."

Zardari didn't seem to get it.

"Mr. President," said Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who was also at the meeting, "This is what they are saying. . . . They're saying that if, in fact, there is a successful attack in the United States, they will take steps to deal with that here, and that we have a responsibility to now cooperate with the United States."

"If something like that happens," Zardari said defensively, "it doesn't mean that somehow we're suddenly bad people or something. We're still partners."

No, both Jones and Panetta said. There might be no way to save the strategic partnership. Underscoring Jones's point, Panetta said, "If that happens, all bets are off."


Is the Administration really determined to wait until after the cancer kills before irradiating it?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 30, 2010 2:25 PM
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