Picture this: A terrifying new report is delivered to the U.S. President. It states starkly that al-Qaeda is in the last stages of preparing to attack the United States. But the response is…nothing. The President takes no action, and the report goes basically unreported in the media.
We’ve heard this story before. But this is not the infamous August, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” This happened just over a week ago, when the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report about the mounting danger of a reconstituted al-Qaeda growing and plotting in the tribal sections of Pakistan. The President’s reaction now, as it was in 2001, was silence.
According to the report, “al-Qaeda’s central leadership, based in the border area of Pakistan, is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the United States…” In 2002, after the al-Qaeda-supported Taliban was forced from power in neighboring Afghanistan, al-Qaeda members and their Afghan extremist allies fled across the border into the mountains of northwest Pakistan, known as the “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” (FATA).
The FATA is desperately poor, undereducated and underdeveloped, with a per-capita income of less than seventy cents per day, half the Pakistani national average. It was in this region—where millions of Afghan refugees fled during the Afghan civil and anti-Soviet wars of the 1980s and 1990s—that the Taliban built the backbone of its army: recruiting, indoctrinating and training a generation of “holy warriors” in radical madrassas. The region’s literacy rate is 17%, leaving a massive educational void to be filled by extremist education. There are about 300 religious madrassas registered in the FATA and potentially hundreds more unregistered Islamic schools. Evidence indicates these schools foster public support for Islamist extremism and terrorism. The Taliban succeeded by taking young refugees who looked forward to no schooling, no jobs and no path in the world, and giving them a religious education, a position in an army and both a spiritual and social purpose.
al-Qaeda and the Taliban have built a new, safe home in the FATA from which they can train and prepare to launch more terrorist attacks across the world. This GAO report demonstrates clearly that they are succeeding in this endeavor, in part because the White House has failed to plan adequately, and act effectively, to defeat our primary enemy.
I suspect that U.S. domestic politics is the primary reason the White House has all but ignored this report, at least in public. Ironically, while the administration has failed to seriously confront this problem, the Republican Party has repeatedly won the presidency and lower elections by banking on its macho image and playing the tough guy, portraying their Democratic opponents as effeminate wimps. (Their campaign has already begun to use the same smear campaign on Barack Obama, pitting him against John McCain and his prisoner of war record.) This Republican machismo translates into a governance love affair with massive, explosive weapons systems like National Missile Defense. It means belittling most international policies designed to support development (economic, political and social) in the underdeveloped regions of the world where terrorism is most easily born. It means investing in large-scale military resources (useful to fight the Nazis or the Soviets) at the expense of “soft-power” tools proven more effective at defeating terrorist groups.
The vast majority of conservative, liberal and moderate national security experts—including General David Petraeus and other counterinsurgency gurus now gaining prominence in the U.S. military—recognize that we can only close these safe havens and defeat al-Qaeda through mostly non-military means. But as the GAO report states, that current U.S. policy directs literally 99% of all funding for Pakistan's FATA toward military and security efforts, and less than 1% for development. Defeating al-Qaeda will require something more than a 1% solution.
This macho image plays well into the President’s Iraq policy as he and his supporters brandish phrases such as, “Bring it on” to challenge insurgents, and label their Iraq policy critics as cowardly “surrender monkeys.” Again, while this is politically advantageous for their own constituencies at home, it has locked the President and his would-be-successor John McCain into a fixation on Iraq when the real threat to the U.S. is in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The GAO report warned unambiguously, “al-Qaeda is now using the Pakistani safe haven to put the last element necessary to launch another attack against America into place.” But the administration and Senator McCain stand to lose politically from acknowledging and confronting this threat. Doing so would be tantamount to admitting that they have endangered America’s security by continuing to invest the bulk of our armed forces and resources in Iraq, when the true danger resides elsewhere.
The President must do what General Petraeus has already done for Iraq, which is to insist on a comprehensive plan for defeating al-Qaeda that doesn’t limit itself only to military options. (The U.S. Senate did its best to pass a law earlier this year that would have required such a plan, but it was stymied by White House allies.) President Bush even said so himself in his 2003 National Security Strategy: we must have “comprehensive plans employing all elements of national power—diplomatic, military, intelligence, development assistance, economic and law enforcement support—to combat terrorism and close terrorist safe havens” such as al-Qaeda’s in Pakistan. But five years later and seven years after the prophetic 2001 briefing, President Bush still isn't following his own advice.
Jonathan Morgenstein is a Senior Policy Fellow for the National Security Program at Third Way, a progressive strategy center in Washington, DC.
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