Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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What Should the White House Do After a Pakistan-based Terrorist Attack?

by Micah Zenko
August 29, 2011

Pakistani soldier Rasheed holds a rocket launcher while standing in a bunker on a mountain in Sadda on July 6, 2010 (Mian Khursheed/Courtesy Reuters).

In his 2006 autobiography, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf claimed that after 9/11, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage warned Musharraf’s intelligence chief that if his country did not cooperate in fighting Al Qaeda, the United States would bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age.” Armitage denied that he ever made such a coercive threat, however, and an account of the meeting made by a State Department staffer reportedly confirmed his version of events.

Nevertheless, successive U.S. military and intelligence officials have visited Islamabad to convey similar warnings. In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year old Pakistani-born American citizen failed in his attempt to detonate a crude car bomb in Times Square. Under questioning, Shahzad admitted that he had received explosives training in an Al Qaeda-affiliated Pakistani terror camp.

Two weeks after the failed Times Square plot, national security adviser, General James Jones, and director of central intelligence, Leon Panetta, were dispatched to Islamabad to deliver a message from President Obama to Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. According to the account revealed in the new book by New York Times journalists, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda:

“Obama’s warning to Kayani that his military that he needed to clamp down on the Islamic fighters, who were using safe havens inside his country, or pay the price of devastating American air strikes, was yet another example of how the U.S. government was adopting classic Cold War notions of deterrence to protect the United States against terrorists. The message was clear: If we are attacked, you will be attacked.”

Despite the reported recent killing of Al Qaeda’s second ranking official, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, by a CIA drone strike, Pakistan’s tribal areas (and Yemen) remain a potential origin for a mass-casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland. The latest State Department Country Reports on Terrorism: 2010 report, released on August 21, states:

“Despite efforts by Pakistani security forces, al-Qa’ida (AQ) terrorists, Afghan militants, foreign insurgents, and Pakistani militants continued to find safe haven in portions of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber Paktunkhwa (KPK), and Baluchistan. AQ and other groups such as the Haqqani Network used Pakistani safe havens to launch attacks in Afghanistan, plan operations worldwide, train, recruit, and disseminate propaganda.”

I highly recommend reading a new Center for Preventive Action Contingency Planning Memorandum by Stephen Tankel, “A Pakistan-based Terrorist Attack on the U.S. Homeland,” which assesses the policy tools the U.S. officials should employ to prevent such an attack, as well as mitigate the consequences if one were to occur.

Tankel proposes that Obama administration officials increase efforts to build counterterrorism capacity among Pakistan’s civilian law enforcement and intelligence agencies, restructure how the United States provides aid and reimbursements to the Pakistan’s military, and develop a campaign plan that accounts for a range of responses in the event of an attack on the U.S. homeland. In a time of increasingly strained relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, the Obama administration should be prepared for all contingencies.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by V. C. Bhutani

    Mr Micah Zenko has called attention to a subject of importance in a timely manner, as does Mr Stephen Tankel in the paper cited therein. I have read both papers with interest and advantage.
    Neither of them has a word to say that Pakistan itself has been the author and user of terror as an instrument of its policies from the moment Soviet troops set foot on Afghan soil and Reagan decided to train and let loose on the Soviets highly motivated jihadis. It is these jihadi elements that Pakistan has been using regularly against both Afghanistan and India since 1990.
    Even the Pakistan army chief makes no secret of his India-centric thinking in matters of strategy. For him, and for others in Pakistan, dealing with Afghanistan is a function of Pakistan’s relations with India, such as they are. Mr Zenko and Mr Tankel must have observed that General Kayani has been reluctant to withdraw too many of his troops from the Indian border: he continues to labour under the self-inflicted alarm that India is perhaps about to launch an invasion of Pakistan.
    No one in the wide world has ever suggested that India started any of the wars that Pakistan fought with India in the past, nor that India is likely to begin a war against Pakistan in the foreseeable future.
    General Kayani and others in Pakistan create the fiction of the Indian threat to Pakistan’s existence: they reap thereby large allocation of funds for the armed forces and continued primacy of the army in Pakistan’s life.
    Not much money is left for development expenditure within Pakistan: the sufferers are the ordinary people of Pakistan.
    It is amusing that Mr Zenko refers to Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s terrorists by the milder term militants. Is this supposed to hide the actuality to some extent? Or, are we supposed to understand that these militants are not terrorists?
    Even so, the underlying idea in the two papers by Mr Zenko and Mr Tankel is the all too real possibility – let us not talk of probability yet – that a Pakistan-based terrorist attack on US mainland or interests abroad may happen and when it does the US should have some kind of a response already considered and ready to execute. Surely that does not quite dispense with the descriptive word ‘terrorist’.
    In my view, the very idea that this is being considered in US think tanks is likely to give a warning to Pakistan’s terrorists, or militants, not to indulge in the unwise act of an attack on US mainland or interests abroad. As it is, 9/11 showed that Al Qaeda had hit above its weight and that it was not quite equal to the power that the US and its Allies were able to put forth.
    But we are assuming that Pakistan’s government, Pakistan’s army, and ISI are really and truly opposed to the terrorist outfits that continue to operate in and from Pakistan against India, against Afghanistan, and against Isaf in Afghanistan. I am not prepared to concede that these are acts of the terrorist outfits without the support and approval of Pakistan’s official establishment. According to my way of thinking, the terrorist outfits are merely instrumentalities of Pakistan’s official establishment, which afford the added advantage of deniability at the same time: some in the world are prepared to accept such denials.
    V. C. Bhutani, Delhi, India, Aug 30 2011, 1030 IST

  • Posted by Chengez K

    It is amusing that people like Mr. Bhutani assume that this article is written about Indian interests!!!

    What this article is trying is to create foundation for next campaign now that Libya has been devastated.

    The destruction that NATO has brought on countries like Afghanistan,Iraq,Libya is not satisfying certain lobbies in America.They believe in the concept of continuous war…one country after another….cities are devastated…children made orphans …yet they keep on creating & planning excuses for the next war!!!

  • Posted by Evon Zarn

    I like your web site, I was emailed the link, will bookmark you and visit once more enjoyed reading this post

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