Suicide attack reveals threat to Obama's Afghanistan plan

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2010 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The suicide attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan has exposed the collaboration among militant Islamist groups on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and aggravated tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan, Washington's most important ally in its war against al Qaida and the Afghan Taliban.

Officials of both countries and independent analysts said the attack in Khost, Afghanistan, 10 miles from the Pakistani border, increases the likelihood that the Pakistani military will bow to pressure from Washington and expand its anti-Taliban offensive along the border.

Pakistan's reluctance so far to act more aggressively on its side of the border threatens to jeopardize the Obama administration's plan to begin withdrawing some U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year, which the president outlined in his Dec. 1 speech announcing his decision to send some 30,000 or more troops to the country.

Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special envoy to the region, sounded a more cautious note Thursday. Visiting Islamabad, he said that there'd be no neat peace deal to end the war in Afghanistan and that even after foreign troops pull out, "the international community is going to have to face up to a long term commitment" to finance the Afghan army and police.

"This is not a war that's going to end on the deck of a battleship or at a place like Dayton, Ohio. This is a different kind of war, and this kind of war doesn't have a conclusive, unambiguous surrender or necessarily peace treaty," Holbrooke told reporters, referring to the Japanese surrender in World War II and the 1995 peace accord that he negotiated for Bosnia.

"The end state is the day when the Taliban no longer are fighting to impose the vision that they and al Qaida have for Afghanistan," Holbrooke said.

The war and the vision, however, aren't confined to Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban, al Qaida and Afghan jihadists in Pakistan's tribal area all claimed credit for the Khost bombing, and U.S. intelligence officials said the groups are now cooperating to devise and direct attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified.

The Obama administration has been urging Pakistani officials to attack militants in the North Waziristan region, where the intelligence officials said the strike on the CIA base likely was planned and directed. Some Pakistani security officials now consider a North Waziristan operation "inevitable."

The U.S. already has begun launching more missile strikes on North Waziristan from unmanned drone aircraft. The eighth attack since the Dec. 30 suicide bombing, carried out Thursday, was aimed at the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud. Early reports suggested that he left the compound that was targeted minutes before it was hit, but intelligence officials in Washington said his fate remains uncertain.

Although Pakistani officials have resisted suggestions that the Afghan insurgency is being directed from their territory, the Khost attack provided stark evidence of that.

The bombing has focused new attention on the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group that U.S. intelligence officials said is based in North Waziristan, has ties to members of the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and probably played a key role in the suicide bombing.

The relative sophistication of the attack, especially in contrast to the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines jet, suggests that the militants who been planned and ran it may have received some training or advice from rogue ISI officers, the officials said.

For example, they said, the bomber, 32-year-old Jordanian Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi, spent most of 2009 in Pakistan and traveled to Khost from Pakistan, and he managed to evade the counter-intelligence tools that customarily are used to assess whether a potential agent is reliable, they said.

"Pakistan has to decide whether Haqqani is an asset or a liability. At the moment, I think they're veering towards liability, but it's not clear," said a Western official in Afghanistan, who couldn't be named because he isn't authorized to discuss the subject publicly.

"The Americans have made it clear that they won't take any crap now," said one senior Pakistani official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "But I think they're making insinuations about ISI involvement just as a way of putting pressure on Pakistan over North Waziristan."

However, there's evidence linking the Khost bombing to the Haqqani network and to the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP.

A posthumous video aired last week showed Balawi seated next to TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud, declaring that he'd exact retribution for the death of the previous Pakistani Taliban chief, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed by a U.S. missile strike in August. The CIA used the Khost base to collect intelligence to direct such drone attacks.

U.S. officials, however, question whether the TTP would be able to run a relatively sophisticated double agent operation in Afghanistan, where the Pakistani group doesn't operate in any significant way. Khost is Haqqani territory, and the officials said it's unlikely that Balawi could have operated there without the Afghan group's support.

It's possible that some low-level ISI officer may have been involved, as well, but it makes no sense for the Pakistani intelligence agency to run such an operation because it's at war with the TTP in South Waziristan, said Kamran Bokhari, the director for the Middle East and South Asia at Stratfor, a private U.S. intelligence firm.

The extremists may be hoping to drive a wedge between Islamabad and Washington and undermine Pakistan's shaky civilian government in an attempt to relieve the pressure on their bases in the tribal areas. The U.S. already is hugely unpopular in Pakistan, and drone attacks outside the tribal areas or stepped up U.S. military operations in Pakistan, which so far have been confined to covert special operations missions, could set the country on fire.

"That's what they (the TTP) want; they want anarchy," Bokhari said. "So instead of focusing on the Taliban, the Pakistanis worry about the Americans."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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