WASHINGTON - While the U.S. presses its war against insurgents linked to al Qaida in Iraq, Osama bin Laden's group is recruiting, regrouping and rebuilding in a new sanctuary along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, senior U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials said.
The threat from the radical Islamic enclave in Waziristan is more dangerous than that from Iraq, which President Bush and his aides call the “central front” of the war on terrorism, said some current and former U.S. officials and experts. Bin Laden himself is believed to be hiding in the region, guiding a new generation of lieutenants and inspiring allied extremist groups in Iraq and other parts of the world.
Al Qaida, its allies in Afghanistan’s Taliban movement and Pakistani radicals “have free rein there now,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst who's with the Middle East Institute, a Washington policy organization.
The remote Pakistani region “is the real heart of the war on terror, and we’re losing,” said a U.S. intelligence official who, like most of his colleagues, requested anonymity because intelligence reports on the matter are highly classified and because their pessimism conflicts with the administration's public statements. "We took our eye off the ball when we went into Iraq."
A truce last Sept. 5 between the Pakistani government and pro-Taliban tribes and Islamic radicals provided al Qaida with its new sanctuary in which to plot terrorist operations and train an influx of fresh foreign recruits, U.S. officials and experts said.
The deal, in which the Pakistani army returned control of the region to tribal leaders, ended three years of fighting in which some 70,000 Pakistani troops deployed at Washington’s behest failed to crush the insurgents while causing extensive civilian casualties and losing hundreds of their own men.
Pakistani forces withdrew to major bases in return for the tribes’ promise to eject foreign jihadis. The deal, however, left Waziristan in the hands of the Islamists, who've imposed strict Islamic law.
Al Qaida has been using training camps in the area to teach lessons learned from fighting the U.S.-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the officials said.
“Al Qaida and the Taliban have to a troubling degree been able to re-create . . . the environment that existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban, to include recruiting and training foreign jihadists and financing and planning terrorist operations," a U.S. intelligence official said.
A senior State Department official, who requested anonymity so he could speak candidly, said the Pakistani army had removed some checkpoints on routes into Waziristan after the truce, allowing an influx of fresh Arab recruits into al Qaida training camps from September to December.
“The danger is worse because they moved in, and getting rid of them is harder,” the official said.
“We’re already seeing spillover effects in southern and eastern Afghanistan at the same time we’re seeing TTP (tactics, techniques and procedures) being transferred back to Afghanistan from Iraq,” the U.S. intelligence official said. “It’s only a matter of time before we see those effects elsewhere as well.”
U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials already have noted a surge in Taliban and al Qaida attacks and suicide bombings against U.S.-led NATO troops, government forces and civilians in Afghanistan.
At least 94 U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan have died since Jan. 1, compared with 77 during the same period last year, according to iCasualties.org, an Internet organization that tracks coalition casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The senior State Department official said that Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, remained “a strong ally” who’d cooperated in the arrests of several top al Qaida operatives, and added that Pakistan had aided in the killings of two senior Taliban leaders this year in Afghanistan.
“The deal in Waziristan did not work, has not worked. The Pakistanis understand that,” he said. “They are still required to kick out the Arabs and stop Talibanization . . . and they are making the effort.”
Some current and former U.S. officials, however, are pessimistic that Pakistan and the United States can root out the growing threat from Waziristan, a region of remote valleys and steep peaks, with a population of about 800,000.
“About the only tool we have are airstrikes, and those are blunt instruments," one U.S. intelligence official said. "A lot of the time when we hit something, we're not sure what we hit."
The tribes along the border - ethnic Pashtuns linked to the Taliban by kinship, culture and a puritanical interpretation of Islam - continue to host Arab fighters of al Qaida as well as militants led by Jalalludin Haqqani, a veteran guerrilla commander and a minister in Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime.
The issue has been a focus of recent talks in Washington and Islamabad between senior Pakistani and U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney.
But Musharraf is engulfed in his gravest domestic crisis since he seized power in a 1999 coup, confronting a nationwide opposition movement that opposes his plan to seek election as president while he remains army chief of staff.
Washington is working with Musharraf on a U.S.-financed scheme to build schools and roads and expand a tribal militia in Pakistan’s deeply impoverished tribal areas to encourage the tribes to withdraw their protection for al Qaida and the Taliban.
The senior State Department official said Musharraf also had been quietly shifting more troops from his eastern border with India to the western frontier with Afghanistan to clamp down on cross-border movements of arms and men.
But other U.S. officials, many experts and the Afghan government contend that Musharraf’s regime is playing both sides, arming, financing and protecting the Taliban to maintain Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad denies the charge.