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Pakistan scales back pursuit of Al Qaeda amid upheaval

September 23, 2007|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Political turmoil and a spate of brazen attacks by Taliban fighters are forcing Pakistan's president to scale back his government's pursuit of Al Qaeda, according to U.S. intelligence officials who fear that the terrorist network will be able to accelerate its efforts to rebuild and plot new attacks.

The development threatens a pillar of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy, which has depended on Pakistan to play a lead role in keeping Al Qaeda under pressure to reduce its ability to coordinate strikes.

President Pervez Musharraf, facing a potentially fateful election next month and confronting calls to yield power after years of autocratic rule, appears too vulnerable to pursue aggressive counter-terrorism operations at the behest of the United States, the intelligence officials said.

At the same time, the Pakistani military has suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks at the hands of militants in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda figures are believed to be hiding.

U.S. intelligence officials said the conditions that have allowed Al Qaeda to regain strength are likely to persist, enabling it to continue training foreign fighters and plot new attacks.

"We are worried," said a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official who closely monitors Pakistan's pursuit of Al Qaeda in the rugged frontier region. The official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

"I think the prospect for aggressive action . . . is probably not good, no matter what," said the official, referring to the federally administered tribal areas where Al Qaeda is particularly strong. If Musharraf is removed from office or agrees to a power-sharing arrangement with political foes, the "change in government could well mean a diminution of cooperation on counter-terrorism," the official added.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said Pakistani retrenchment appears to have begun.

"We're already beginning to see some signs of that," the official said, citing a recent series of reversals by the Pakistan military.

"In the next few days, we're probably going to see a withdrawal of forces that the Pakistanis put there," the intelligence official said, adding that the move could solidify a "safe haven, where the [Al Qaeda] leadership is secure, operational planners can do their business, and foreigners can come in and be trained and redeploy to the West."

Meanwhile, Bin Laden declared war on Musharraf in a new audiotape released last week, a message that experts said was timed to take advantage of the political turmoil.

Over the years, Musharraf's commitment to rooting out elements of Al Qaeda and the Taliban has sometimes been questioned. Last fall, the president struck a peace agreement with tribal leaders in North and South Waziristan, scaling back military operations in return for a pledge that the tribes would rein in foreign fighters.

Instead, American intelligence officials said, the deal took pressure off Al Qaeda at a critical time, enabling it to regroup and reestablish ties with terrorist affiliates in other parts of the world.

In recent months, Musharraf has sent troops to the tribal areas, particularly after a series of suicide bombings by militants who vowed revenge after government forces in July stormed a radical mosque in Islamabad, the capital.

Musharraf's popular support has eroded rapidly this year, starting with a failed attempt to oust the nation's chief justice.

The Pakistani leader, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, hopes to secure another presidential term in an Oct. 6 vote by national and provincial lawmakers. He faces legal challenges to his candidacy, and some opposition parties plan to boycott the vote. In response to calls that he give up his post as military chief, Musharraf said he would do so after being reelected, a pledge questioned by opponents.

The developments have triggered new concern in the intelligence community that a six-year effort by the United States and Pakistan to root out Al Qaeda, which has had limited success, could further falter. The intelligence official described it as a "caldron of events" that has become a significant complication in efforts to rein in terrorism.

The prevailing view among U.S. intelligence analysts is that Musharraf probably will remain in power, but in a significantly weakened position that may require him to embrace democratic reforms and share authority with one or more political rivals, U.S. officials said.

Such an arrangement would deprive Musharraf of the dictatorial power he has wielded, which enabled him to contain the political cost of carrying out counter-terrorism operations at the behest of the United States.

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