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Vice President Cheney Urges Pakistan to Fight Al-Qaida

February 26, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Last fall, President Bush invited two key allies, the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, to the White House. The goal: to seek cooperation against common enemies, the resurgent Taliban and the terrorist group al-Qaida.

The two mutually suspicious presidents, Pervez Musharraf and Hamid Karzai, have been at odds over how to assert control over the lawless Waziristan region along their shared border. Within weeks, the president was offering this optimistic assessment.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Absolutely we’re winning; al-Qaida is on the run.

GWEN IFILL: But that optimism has since faded, as U.S. intelligence estimates of al-Qaida’s strength have changed. John Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, told Congress last month a resilient al-Qaida remains the greatest threat to the United States.

JOHN NEGROPONTE, Former National Intelligence Director: They are cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders’ secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

GWEN IFILL: 2006 proved to be the deadliest year yet in Afghanistan, where U.S. and coalition troops have been fighting since 2001. Military and intelligence officials believe Taliban and al-Qaida fighters routinely disappear into the mountains and caves along the 1,500-mile border with Pakistan.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Taliban and al-Qaida fighters do hide in remote regions of Pakistan. This is wild country. This is wilder than the Wild West, and these folks hide, and recruit, and launch attacks.

GWEN IFILL: This footage, provided by a private counterintelligence firm, purportedly shows al-Qaida militants striking U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan during a 45-minute firefight. It surfaced 10 days ago and also contained a message from al-Qaida’s number-two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the tape, Zawahiri threatens future attacks and says al-Qaida still has a safe haven in Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed the administration’s concerns about a resurgent al-Qaida yesterday on ABC’s “This Week.”

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: I don’t doubt that al-Qaida has tried to regenerate some of its leadership. I don’t doubt that.

I don’t think that anybody would claim that this is the same organization or the same kind of organization that operated out of Afghanistan, but we have to be vigilant.

GWEN IFILL: A series of administration officials, including White House counterterrorism adviser Frances Townsend and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have visited the region recently for private meetings.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: We talked about the importance of seizing the offensive this spring to deal the Taliban and al-Qaida a strategic setback.

GWEN IFILL: And today, Vice President Cheney arrived in Pakistan for an unannounced, four-hour visit. Officials said he arrived with a strong message for Musharraf: Stem cross-border attacks in Afghanistan or face a possible decrease in U.S. aid.

The vice president also planned to meet today in Kabul with President Karzai, but that meeting was cancelled due to the weather.

The resurgence of Al-Qaida

Steven Simon
Former NSC Counterterrorism Official
Well, the U.S. can't do it alone. These things are happening, apparently, on Pakistani soil. So it's going to require the cooperation of the Pakistani government to do anything about it, and Pervez Musharraf runs the Pakistani government.

GWEN IFILL: Now for more on U.S. worries about al-Qaida in Pakistan, we turn to John Brennan, former director of the CIA's National Counterterrorism Center. He retired in 2005 after 25 years at the agency.

And Steven Simon, a former National Security Council counterterrorism official during the Clinton administration, he is co-author of "The Next Attack" and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Steven Simon, how do we know that this is, indeed, true, that al-Qaida is as resilient as we have been hearing all these officials say? What's the evidence?

STEVEN SIMON, Former National Security Council Official: Well, some of it is inference, but there is evidence, partly in the form of links that have been uncovered between attackers and plotters, mostly in Britain, but also elsewhere, since Sept. 11, who were thought originally to have been operating on their own, but who, as it turns out, were linked quite specifically and indubitably to al-Qaida players in Pakistan.

There's also overhead imagery, there's photography of camps that are being reconstructed in that area, as well as reporting, both open source and intelligence circles, about recruiting that al-Qaida is doing, particularly of young British, South Asian-origin males whom al-Qaida would like to move back to Britain as sleeper cells.

GWEN IFILL: So, John Brennan, if all of this is so, then what does this say about what the U.S. effort has been, the success so far of the U.S. effort, or the Pakistani effort, or the Afghan effort, so far to root this out?

JOHN BRENNAN, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center: Well, I think there has been quite a bit of progress over the past several years, as far as uprooting the traditional al-Qaida core from the Afghan-Pakistan area.

But al-Qaida is very adaptable, and they basically have banded together now with the Taliban remnants. And they are basically engaged in an insurgency in that area against the Pakistani forces, as well as against Afghan and coalition forces.

So I think what we're seeing now is their ability over the past several years to regroup and to then find areas where they can operate from. And it is a worrisome development, as the secretary said.

GWEN IFILL: So what's the point of having Vice President Cheney there? How significant is it to have someone that high level go for a meeting in Pakistan and then to try to get to Afghanistan, as well?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, the U.S. can't do it alone. These things are happening, apparently, on Pakistani soil. So it's going to require the cooperation of the Pakistani government to do anything about it, and Pervez Musharraf runs the Pakistani government.

GWEN IFILL: Has he done all he can?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, you know, he's what some people call a minimal satisfier. I mean, he's not just an instrument of U.S. counterterrorism policy; he is also the leader of Pakistan.

And he has Pakistani constituencies he needs to satisfy, not least of which is his army, the institution on which his rule depends. So he's going to do as much as he can to make the U.S. happy, without alienating the people, you know, on whose support he relies.

Musharraf's role

John Brennan
Former CIA Official
I think everybody knows that Musharraf has tried to do what he can do, but I think what Washington wants to do is to push him a little bit more, because he has to maintain constant pressure on the al-Qaida elements, but also on the tribes.

GWEN IFILL: Reports out of this meeting today said that President Musharraf said to the vice president, "We are doing all we can." Has the United States begun to lose confidence in him?

JOHN BRENNAN: It's not a question of losing confidence. It's the intention of the vice president's trip, is to maintain pressure on Musharraf.

I think everybody knows that Musharraf has tried to do what he can do, but I think what Washington wants to do is to push him a little bit more, because he has to maintain constant pressure on the al-Qaida elements, but also on the tribes.

The agreement that was reached between Musharraf and tribal leaders last September I think has really demonstrated that the tribal elders are not going to put that type of pressure on the al-Qaida elements that we would like.

And so this is a message clearly to Musharraf: You need to take control of that area, and you need to put pressure on the tribal elders, and you need to put your forces in that area to make sure that the al-Qaida is pushed back.

GWEN IFILL: Which means what, practically? What is it that the United States would like to see that Musharraf is doing to demonstrate he truly is doing all he can?

STEVEN SIMON: I think the United States would like to do two things. First, see a sharp reduction in the amount of cross-border movement between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And that's something that the tribes can control, at least to some extent.

And, secondly, they'd like to have some information on the whereabouts of bin Laden and his war council, and it's presumed that the tribal leaders know something about where he is.

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that Karzai also has a role in?

JOHN BRENNAN: Very much so. And Musharraf continues to point fingers over at the Afghan capital and President Karzai, saying that the Afghans need to do more. And so it really requires the involvement of both the Afghans, the Pakistanis, as well as our coalition forces out there. But, clearly, the Afghans have to play an aggressive role in the southern area.

Pakistan-U.S. relations

Steven Simon
Former NSC Counterterrorism Official
Musharraf doesn't have quite the flexibility he needs, as John Brennan was saying, to do everything we want him to do. And at the end of the day, we are going to have to take what we can get.

GWEN IFILL: And the U.S. has to be the glue in every case. Does it have the leverage to make this happen, the United States?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, the United States is trying to, again, keep the pressure on it, but I think we have to continue with the security and military intelligence cooperation with the Afghan-Pak government.

But, in addition, I think we have to take a new look at what type of reconstruction assistance needs to be increased, because what we want to do is to try to improve the situation for the Afghan and Pak people along that border, which means more road construction, more infrastructure development.

GWEN IFILL: Paid for by the United States.

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, underwritten by the United States, yes. We're putting so much in for security and military support, I think what we need to do is to make sure that economic assistance is there, too, because that's the longer term solution that we need to go after.

GWEN IFILL: At what point does Musharraf asking the United States for that kind of assistance become, "Well, we'll do what you want, but we need more money," become kind of a quid pro quo in that sense?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, it's already becoming difficult, because Congress, which supplies the money for the Pakistani government -- there's a significant amount of aid both on the economic and military side -- Congress is getting restive.

And this is, I'm sure, one of the things that the vice president was telling President Musharraf. You know, look, we, the White House and the administration, would like to continue supporting you, despite your not entirely satisfactory cooperation, but, you know, Congress may well force our hand.

GWEN IFILL: Can the United States afford to lose Pakistan as an ally, if they were finally to put their foot down and say, "You do this or else"?

JOHN BRENNAN: Absolutely not. We need to maintain our very close relationship with the Pakistan government and President Musharraf, but President Musharraf...

GWEN IFILL: Because?

JOHN BRENNAN: Because it's so critical to ensure the continued pressure on al-Qaida and the Taliban in that area. But Musharraf doesn't have another option. He cannot just tell the United States, "No, I'm not going to cooperate with you on the counterterrorism front," because the al-Qaida and Taliban elements pose a threat to his government, to his stability, and to Musharraf personally.

GWEN IFILL: But can he do just enough but not enough in order to keep the United States dangling?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I think he's going to continue to do as much as he feels he's able to do. And I think our role is going to be to continue to guide and push him in the direction of doing more.

GWEN IFILL: Let's flip that. Can Pakistan afford to lose the United States as an ally?

STEVEN SIMON: Not really. You know, for Pakistan, the United States is a critical counterbalance to India. And you can't forget the Indian angle here.

The Pakistani government is dealing with an insurgency, a proto insurgency, for lack of a better term, in Baluchistan. You know, that's a problem for them. The Indians are meddling there.

There's a nuclear confrontation, potentially, between Pakistan and India. They're both nuclear-arm powers. The Pakistanis need an outside powerful backer, and the United States is that country. So, no, I don't think that they can easily shed us.

On the other hand, Musharraf doesn't have quite the flexibility he needs, as John Brennan was saying, to do everything we want him to do. And at the end of the day, we are going to have to take what we can get.

Musharraf's cooperation

John Brennan
Former CIA Official
[T]he Taliban and al-Qaida have basically joined forces. And so what you're seeing now across the border is the Taliban-al-Qaida forces who have come together against the Pakistanis, against the Afghans, against coalition forces there.

GWEN IFILL: At the same time that we've been hearing about this resurgent al-Qaida, we've also been hearing about a resurgent Taliban. Is there a way to measure which one is a bigger threat or whether they are in any way linked?

JOHN BRENNAN: It's almost impossible now to distinguish between them. I think the Taliban and al-Qaida have basically joined forces.

And so what you're seeing now across the border is the Taliban-al-Qaida forces who have come together against the Pakistanis, against the Afghans, against coalition forces there.

So, in fact, al-Qaida has been bolstered by those Taliban elements. And the extremist sentiment in that area is providing them ready recruits to conduct, whether its insurgency operations in that area, or possibly to participate in terrorist operations abroad.

GWEN IFILL: I understand there's a geographic issue here, but what stops the United States from just taking this on themselves, conducting unilateral air strikes, or whatever it takes to root out this combined force? Why does it require Pakistan's cooperation or Afghanistan's cooperation?

STEVEN SIMON: If the United States were to completely dismiss issues of Pakistani sovereignty and just go in there and try to do the job themselves, it would dangerously weaken Musharraf's position, because he would be accused at home of either being complicit with what the United States has done or powerless to prevent what the United States has done.

Either way, he will look weak and, you know, his position will be in endangered. And the United States doesn't know what will happen after Musharraf.

GWEN IFILL: So Musharraf, it's important for the United States that Musharraf remains where he is, at the very least, as the least of bad choices.

JOHN BRENNAN: Absolutely. The Pakistani stability is very much in our interest. And Musharraf, whatever misgivings we might have about some of his politics and his inability to go further against the terrorism target, he has demonstrated that he's been the glue that will hold Pakistan together, because if Pakistan were to devolve into instability and chaos, we would really have a problem in South Asia.

GWEN IFILL: John Brennan, Steven Simon, thank you both very much.

JOHN BRENNAN: Thank you.

STEVEN SIMON: Thanks.