DEBKAfile Exclusive Analysis
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Washington’s chosen linchpin-to-be in Islamabad, was an unmitigated disaster for America’s war on al Qaeda and its jihadist allies in the key Pakistan-Afghan arena. The 27/12 murder closed a cycle sent spinning by al Qaeda’s 9/11 assault on America in the early days of President George W. Bush’s first term. It has left him clutching at thin air.
This single act of violence hit the West as US-led NATO forces suffer one setback after another in Afghanistan and Taliban and a Qaeda are in control of more than 75 percent of the country. It has done more harm than all the evil wrought against US forces by al Qaeda’s ace commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the two years before he was slain.
Al Qaeda left its fingerprints – but typically no trace of the perpetrators. To this day, the master plotters who launched 19 suicide killers against America on Sept. 19, have not been caught, any more than those who engineered the 2004 Madrid rail bombers or the 2005 London transport attacks. The string-pullers of the Bhutto assassination may never come to light.
For now, Western counter-terror agencies are on tenterhooks for a Osama bin Laden message promised in the next 24-48 hours, in which al Qaeda promises he will divulge its steps for salvaging “Iraq’s Muslim Caliphate,” an oblique reference to US military gains.
Bin Laden is expected to make some reference to Pakistan as well, since al Qaeda’s strategists do not see their jihad in terms of separate fronts, but as a single interlinked arena stretching across several regions.
Furthermore, they try never to gamble on a chancy target. Their spadework is lengthy and thorough, consisting of long surveillance to seek out chinks in Western armor, the exploitation of its blunders, advance intelligence-gathering and a strike that leaves no tracks.
Benazir Bhutto was easy prey. Pakistan’s army and Inter-Service Intelligence are rife with Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers. For more than a year, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice bargained with President Pervez Musharraf on terms for a power-sharing deal that would bring the opposition leader back from her eight-year exile into heart of Islamabad politics.
No great strategic brain was needed to spot the glaring weakness in putting all of America’s eggs for reforming Pakistan’s political and military shortcomings into one basket. The same fallacy mars Rice’s Palestinian strategy: if Mahmoud Abbas is disposed of like Bhutto, US plans for the Eastern Mediterranean go up in smoke like its Asian arena.
Ahead of the Bhutto assassination, al Qaeda prepared follow-up actions in Iraq and Gaza.
Two major steps are revealed here by DEBKAfile’s counter-terror sources:
1. The Fatah al-Islam commander Shaker al-Abessi was transferred to Iraq to spearhead a new offensive. Al Abessi commanded the four-month Fatah al-Islam confrontation with the Lebanese army from the Badr al-Nahr camp near Tripoli in the summer of 2007. The Lebanese army saved the day and the northern provinces from falling into the hands of this al Qaeda offshoot, only after the US stepped in with assistance and an infusion of weapons. Even then, it took a battle of wits between Adm. William Fallon, chief of US Central Command, and al-Abessi to beat him.
Even then, al Qaeda had the last word: On Dec. 12, Brig. Gen. Francois el-Hajj, the Lebanese officer who worked with Adm. Fallon, was assassinated.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda, hoping to build al-Abessi into a second al-Zarqawi, has sent him to establish the “Iraq Front,” a new body for recouping the organization’s trounced forces and turning the tables on the US army. His plan to transit the Syrian-Iraqi border with his top men shows how fragile and uncertain are Washington’s gains in securing joint Syrian-US control of the border.
2. A large body of the Fatah al-Islam rank and file was transferred from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip, apparently by sea. This week, they were in the thick of the Hamas-Jihad Islami missile and mortar offensive against Israel.
By these two steps, al Qaeda established support structures for its next two offensives in a region ranging from Afghanistan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west.
Osama bin Laden’s momentum after Benazir Bhutto was murdered might have been slowed had the Americans reacted rapidly with a combined US-Pakistan military assault on al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan, on a scale comparable to the post-9/11 campaign. But neither army was ready. The day before the murder, Washington laid plans to boost its special forces presence in Pakistan in the course of 2008.
In an interview to the Voice of America, Adm. Fallon said: “What we’ve seen in the last several months is more of a willingness to use their regular army units along the Afghan border.” He added: …”and this is where I think we can help a lot in providing the kind of training and assistance and mentoring based on our experience with insurgencies recently and with the terrorist problem in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
This belated plan will have to be re-examined in the anti-Musharraf, anti-US climate prevailing in Pakistan after the Benazir Bhutto tragedy.
By pushing for elections to be held on Jan. 8 as scheduled, Secretary Rice is making the same mistake as before, when her democratic urge raised up the terrorist Hamas in a Palestinian election two years ago. Musharraf his holding his horses, waiting for Bhutto’s party to meet Sunday, Dec. 30, and decide whether to run or join the boycott declared by the rival Nawaf Sharif. Monday, the election commission convenes for its decision. This process cannot be foisted on Islamabad without risking increased violence directed against the president as an “American puppet.”
Musharraf was already on a downward slope before Bhutto’s death and his army was falling back in the war on Islamist extremists. DEBKAfile’s sources foresee this process accelerating and opening the way to the takeover by Taleban and al Qaeda of more parts of Pakistan.
Given this prospect, anxiety over the fate of Pakistan’s estimated 50-60 nuclear warheads is more acute. The Pentagon’s assurance Friday that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure under the control of the military would become meaningless if that military turns against the United States. An American operation to pluck that arsenal from terrorist clutches might be fought off by that same military.
In these circumstances, however badly they are needed for the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, US special forces will need to be permanently deployed within speedy reach of Pakistan’s nuclear stocks. A single bullet (or blast) has switched the spotlight on the world’s most dangerous nuclear threat from Iran to Pakistan.