The American Legion Magazine | 9.1.09
By Alan W. Dowd

Some in Washington may no longer call it a “war,” but whatever it is that 9/11 unleashed—a reckoning or reformation, a global guerilla war, a worldwide police action, a war on terrorism—it has many fronts.

For the better part of a decade now, Americans have been focused on just two of those fronts: Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet what some call a “generational struggle” against terrorists and their patrons rages in many places. These forgotten fronts are just as important to America’s long-term success.

Pakistan may not be a forgotten front, but for 15 years it has been a neglected front. It pays to recall that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) effectively spawned the Taliban in 1994-95 in a shortsighted attempt to stabilize Afghanistan. Call it blowback or payback, but today Taliban tribesmen and their al-Qaeda allies are destabilizing Pakistan.

Since 2001, they have assassinated a former prime minister, killed thousands of Pakistanis, and carried out too many attacks to count—an assault on cricket players from Sri Lanka, an attack on the police academy in Lahore, destruction of NATO equipment and transport trucks, murders of moderate officials, the torching of 180 girls schools, a bombing at the Islamabad Marriot.

As President Barack Obama concludes, “al Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.”

In fact, the State Department noted in 2008 that al Qaeda “has reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities” in Pakistan.[1] Osama bin Laden’s likely address is somewhere in Pakistan’s ungoverned Taliban territories.

Hence, the so-called “drone war”—missile attacks by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles against targets inside Pakistan—that began under the Bush administration continues under the Obama administration. “It’s the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership,” according to CIA Director Leon Panetta.[2]

As the Taliban and al Qaeda destabilize Pakistan, they also undermine the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan.

According to The International Herald Tribune, ISI’s “S Wing” is helping coordinate Taliban operations in southern Afghanistan.[3]

The Taliban and al Qaeda are also wreaking havoc with NATO supplies inbound from Pakistan. Almost 80 percent of NATO’s equipment in Afghanistan is carried from Karachi, to holding terminals in Peshawar, to the Khyber Pass and into landlocked Afghanistan. The Karachi-Peshawar-Khyber gauntlet has come under attack dozens of times in the past year.

The “cancer” that scars Afghanistan and Pakistan today is largely a result of Pakistan’s inability to secure its laughably misnamed Federally Administered Tribal Areas. In fact, when the Pakistani military isn’t steering clear of these areas where the Taliban and al Qaeda breed, it is losing engagements against them or cutting deals with them:

  • In 2007, 248 Pakistani soldiers surrendered in Waziristan without a fight. Half of the policemen in Pakistan’s Swat district have quit in recent months.
  • Between 2001 and 2007, more than 1,000 Pakistani troops were killed in battle. (By way of comparison, about the same number of NATO troops, including 678 Americans, were killed in Afghanistan from October 2001 through May 2009.)
  • The Pakistani government is ceding vast stretches of its territory to the Taliban—and in the process, feeding the very monster that is devouring what remains of a secular, democratic, nuclear-armed Pakistan. In fact, a study by The Long War Journal concludes that 23 of Pakistan’s districts/provinces are contested or under Taliban control.[4] “You can’t deal with these people by giving away territory,” warns U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke.[5]

By May of this year, Taliban forces were within 60 miles of Islamabad, triggering the government’s bloody Swat offensive—and awakening Pakistanis to what Gen. David Petraeus calls a battle for “the very existence of the Pakistani state.”[6]

Yet Islamabad spurns offers for direct international intervention, invoking its sovereign borders in one breath before claiming it is too weak to control its territory in the next. We are left with two unsettling prospects: Either Pakistan’s intelligence and military assets are beyond the government’s control, or the government is complicit in what its intelligence operatives do and what its military won’t do.

Regardless of the causes of Islamabad’s failures, the results are the same: Pakistan has become a metastasis of terror.

India knows this all too well. To borrow the parlance of the Cold War, India is a frontline state in the war on terror.

Even as the Taliban sets Pakistan ablaze, elements of ISI are reported to have provided support to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group involved in the Mumbai siege, which killed 183 people. ISI’s fingerprints are also on the attack against India’s embassy in Kabul, which killed 54 people in 2008.[7]

Beyond the Kabul and Mumbai attacks, terrorists bombed markets in Jaipur and New Delhi, industrial facilities in Bangalore and buses in Ahmedabad in 2008. In fact, scores of Indian civilians were killed by what the State Department calls “South Asian Islamic extremist groups” and indigenous terrorist groups last year.[8]

Sadly, 2008 wasn’t an anomaly. The State Department reports that terrorists of all stripes killed 2,300 people in India in 2007. In 2006, jihadist groups attacked commuter trains in Mumbai, killing some 200 people; in 2003, they targeted a hotel in Delhi; and in 2001, they attacked the Indian parliament.[9]

Central Asia
Before leaving the neighborhood, we should take stock of the “Stans”: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. These Central Asian countries have grown increasingly critical to the war effort in Afghanistan—a fact underscored by Kyrgyzstan’s surprising threat to boot the U.S. from Manas Airbase, a key hub for operations in the Afghan theater.

The Stans remind us that the war on terror, like the Cold War, has many dimensions, including diplomatic, economic and geopolitical. Uzbekistan, for instance, abruptly ended a base-leasing deal in 2005 due to U.S. criticism of the country’s human rights situation. In Kyrgyzstan, Moscow is pulling strings to send a message to Washington about missile defense and NATO expansion—issues that have nothing to do with the fight against global terrorism. And the Kyrgyz government itself seems to be shopping for the best deal.

With Manas Airbase up in the air, the U.S. has worked out backup plans to carry equipment by rail and/or air into Afghanistan via Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; to use overland routes through Tajikistan; and/or to transport equipment through Turkmenistan. As The Times of London reports, the Turkmen route would carry supplies by ship across the Black Sea to Georgia, then by truck to Azerbaijan, then by ship across the Caspian to Turkmenistan, then into Afghanistan.

Amid all the political intrigue and logistical gymnastics, the good news about Central Asia is that many of the Stans are eager to assist the U.S. and NATO. Plus, most have summoned the will to combat the jihadist threat, even if they lack the resources.[10]

Yemeni groups linked to al Qaeda have been very active of late, launching a deadly attack on the U.S. embassy last September and orchestrating prison breaks of high-level terrorists.[11] As in Pakistan, the Yemeni government is making the enemy’s job easier, having released 170 men with al-Qaeda links in early 2009.[12]

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair reports that Yemen “is re-emerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for al Qaeda to plan internal and external attacks, train terrorists and facilitate the movement of operatives.”[13]

Note his use of the word “re-emerging.” Some forget that America has been hit (the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole) and has hit back (the 2002 missile strike by a Predator drone) in Yemen.

Somalia first caught the attention of most Americans in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush dispatched 28,000 troops to end a manmade famine. The mercy mission began to unravel in October 1993, when 18 Americans were killed in an ambush and ensuing gun battle in Mogadishu. We didn’t learn until later that bin Laden’s network had provided training to the Somali militiamen.

Fast forward 16 years, and Somalia is still a frontline state. At times, Somalia has even been under the nominal control of a movement aligned with al Qaeda.

However, the U.S. and regional allies such as Ethiopia have partnered to blunt the Islamist advance in Somalia. In fact, in 2007, U.S. warplanes targeted the chief planner of al-Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in southern Somalia. That same year, the U.S. Navy struck terror bases along the coast of Somalia.

Today, much of the pirate plague is emanating from Somalia. Stratfor, an intelligence clearinghouse, notes that “there may be some limited business transactions” between al Qaeda and the pirates but adds that “the clan politics of Somalia simply do not allow for broader strategic cooperation.”

Of course, the two problems can be traced to the same source: anarchy in Somalia. To bolster the fragile Somali government, the Obama administration began shipping weapons and ammunition in 2009. Washington also is supporting efforts by Somalia’s neighbors to train the Somali army.[14]

The chaotic state of much of Africa is one reason the U.S. created an Africa Command in 2008. The U.S. military has expanded its base in Djibouti, where some 2,000 U.S. troops have been deployed since 2003, conducting humanitarian, training and military operations in support of the wider struggle against terrorism.

In fact, U.S. Special Operations units have been at work in Africa throughout the post-9/11 period. As The Washington Post has reported, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative provides training, equipment and intelligence to militaries in Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Jane’s Defense reported that elements of the 3rd Special Forces Group were in Mali in 2007.[15]

In 2003, Libya’s Moammar Quadaffi renounced terror as a tool of his regime. And he matched his words with actions. Quadaffi’s government accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and agreed to pay compensation to the families of those killed.

Equally important, in an act of preemptive surrender, Quadaffi gave up his entire WMD program, including tons of mustard gas, nerve gas and nuclear material.[16]

“Was it pure coincidence,” Johns Hopkins scholar Fouad Ajami observes, “that only days after Saddam’s capture the Libyan strongman...threw his country wide open to international inspectors and owned up to an extensive program for the development of chemical and biological weapons?”[17]

Libya’s WMD program is now entirely dismantled, much of it shipped to Tennessee and destroyed.

In a sign of how much Libya has changed, the U.S lifted its designation of Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism in 2006, and upgraded its offices in Tripoli to embassy status. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command, has even labeled Quadaffi an “enemy of Islam.”

The Philippines
Small detachments of U.S. forces began arriving in the Philippines in early 2002 to train and assist the Philippine army in its fight against terrorist groups Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. A U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force continues to partner with Philippine forces. The result has been one of the more successful battles in the war on terror.

More than 100 Abu Sayyaf terrorists were killed in 2007, including the group’s leader. Dozens more have been captured. According to the State Department, in 2007 and 2008, the U.S. and the Philippines created joint intelligence fusion centers and a “Coast Watch” program to monitor and disrupt terror cells; U.S. military, intelligence and reconnaissance elements have supported Philippine forces in operations in the southern Philippines; the U.S. Department of Justice has helped train 5,000 police; and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has developed a “biometric initiative” to assist the Philippine National Police in hunting down suspected terrorists.[18]

Some point to the Philippines as a model of how to fight modern terrorism. “Counter-insurgency is counter-intuitive,” as Zachary Abuza of SimmonsCollege explained in a recent interview with HDNet. “You gotta go in with less to do more,” he said, arguing that U.S. efforts in the Philippines have been successful because “the footprint has been very small.”[19]

Whether small or large—whether Washington calls this a war or something else—the U.S. military will likely leave footprints on many other battlefronts in the years to come.

[1] State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2007, April 2008, p.7.

[2] See Noah Shachtman, “CIA Chief: Drones ‘Only Game in Town’ for Stopping al Qaeda,” www.wired.com/dangerroom, May 19, 2009.

[3] Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “Afghan strikes by Taliban get Pakistan help, US aides say,” IHT, March 25, 2009.

[4] Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda’s Paramilitary Shadow Army,” The Long War Journal, February 9, 2009.

[5] Pamela Constable, ‘Extremist tide rises in Pakistan,” Washington Post, April 20, 2009.

[6] Jim Garamone, “Patraeus says Pakistani leaders uniting against Taliban,” AFPS, May 10, 2009.

[7] Mazetti and Schmitt.

[8] State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, April 2009, http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2008/122434.htm.

[9] The Economist, “The Pakistan connection,” December 3, 2009.

[10]State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, April 2009,  http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2008/122434.htm.

[11] See Barbara Starr, “Yemen prison break raises alarms at sea,” CNN, February 7, 2006; ROBERT F. WORTH, “Freed by the U.S., Saudi Becomes a Qaeda Chief,” New York Times, January 22, 2009.

[12] AHMED AL-HAJ, “Official: Yemen Releases 170 Al-Qaida Suspects,” Associated Press, February 8, 2009.

[13] Quoted in “Obama’s Gitmo Mess,” Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2009.

[14] Pauline Jelinek and Lolita Baldor, “Officials: US bolsters Somalia aid to foil rebels,” AP, June 25, 2009.

[15] See Ann Scoot Tyson, “US pushes anti-terrorism in Africa,” Washington Post, July 26, 2005; Nathan Hodge, “Training programmes signal deepening US ties with West Africa,” Jane’s Defense, September 7, 2007, www.janes.com/news/defence/land/jdw/jdw070907_1_n.shtml.

[16] BBC News, "Libya ships out last WMD parts," March 7, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/africa/3539799.stm.

[17] Fouad Ajami, The Foreigner’s Gift, pp.196-197.

[18] State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2007, April 2008; State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, April 2009,  http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2008/122434.htm.

[19] Dan Rather Reports, “Target: Philippines,” http://www.hd.net/transcript.html?air_master_id=A5842.