Since FRONTLINE's report was first broadcast (October 2006), the threat from jihadist forces inside Pakistan and its tribal areas has grown. Here are some reports and analysis on the crisis, plus the views of some of the 2008 presidential contenders on how they'd handle it.
- Related Link
- Interview with Benazir Bhutto
Not long after 9/11, FRONTLINE interviewed former Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto about why Islamist militants have grown so strong in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, why extremism is spreading within her own society, and the long and tangled ties between Pakistan and the Taliban. [Note: Ms. Bhutto's interview was one of many conducted for FRONTLINE's 2001 report, Saudi Time Bomb? We have published it following her assassination on Dec. 27, 2007.]
A Growing -- and Changing -- Insurgency
The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto capped a year in which Taliban violence in Pakistan soared. Suicide bombers attacked at an "unprecedented rate" of one per week, with targets including politicians, police installations, army barracks and intelligence-agency employees. In fact, according to local police, the city of Peshawar alone, which borders the ungovernable tribal areas, experienced one attack per week in 2007.
New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll traced "the unraveling of Pakistan" and how "the old patterns of radicalism are changing" in his January 2008 article "Time Bomb" -- a subject also explored by Pakistan-based writer Nicholas Schmidle in his New York Times Magazine article "Next-Gen Taliban." Schmidle reports how "efforts at democratic integration by [Islamist] parties ... have now been overshadowed by the violence of their antidemocratic Islamist colleagues -- a network of younger Taliban fighting on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, jihadis pledging loyalty to Al Qaeda and any number of freelancing militants." [Editor's Note: Two days after Schmidle's story was published, he received a visit from intelligence offiials notifying him he was being expelled from the country. Though a well-connected friend intervened on his behalf, Schmidle wrote in The Washington Post in February about how he feared for his safety and decided to leave the country.]
Several former senior Pakistani intelligence officials spoke to The New York Times in early January, admitting that the intelligence services have lost control of the militant networks they created. According to the Times, the disclosures -- including allegations that the ISI, Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, has gone through three purges to rid itself of Taliban sympathizers -- "confirm some of the worst fears, and suspicions, of American and Western military officials and diplomats."
And on Jan. 27, the Times reported that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and CIA Director Michael Hayden traveled to Pakistan in early January to convince President Musharraf to expand U.S. presence in the tribal areas, either through "unilateral covert CIA missions or by joint operations with Pakistani security forces." Musharraf rebuffed the request, which the Times reported was prompted by "an increasing sense of urgency at the highest levels of the United States government that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are intensifying efforts to destabilize the Pakistani government."
Baitullah Mehsud -- the New Leader of the Pakistani Taliban
In December 2006, loosely aligned Taliban forces in the tribal areas elected a new leader: Baitullah Mehsud, a 32-year-old uneducated but charismatic follower of his late fellow tribesman Abdullah Mehsud.
In February 2005, Baitullah, who models himself on Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, had been a party to a peace deal with the government of President Musharraf. He and other militants reportedly received a payment of $540,000, allegedly to repay a loan from Al Qaeda. But the cash and the cease-fire allowed him to create a safe haven and consolidate his forces.
According to The New York Times, Baitullah "has claimed to have hundreds of suicide bombers at the ready." He is alleged to be behind a series of attacks in Pakistan, including the summer 2007 capture of more than 250 Pakistani soldiers, who reportedly surrendered without firing a shot, as well as a series of coordinated attacks in January 2008 on Pakistani military forts in South Waziristan, as well as another fort and an electrical grid in North Waziristan.
The Pakistani government has blamed Baitullah for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto; in January 2008, it released a transcript of a phone conversation allegedly between Baitullah and another militant in which he seems to take credit for the assassination. "Were they our men?" Baitullah asks, and upon receiving confirmation, he replies: "It was a tremendous effort. They were brave boys who killed her."
Though Baitullah has denied playing any role in Bhutto's assassination -- and Bhutto's supporters and families have hinted at government complicity -- CIA Director Michael Hayden indicated in an interview with The Washington Post that the agency too has concluded Baitullah and his allies were behind the attack "as part of an organized campaign."
What Will the Candidates Do About Pakistan?
To date, the biggest election 2008 dust-up over U.S. policy towards Pakistan occurred in the summer of 2007, after Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama suggested he would be willing to unilaterally send U.S. troops into the country to hunt down Al Qaeda forces. "I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges," he said in an Aug. 1 speech about terrorism. "But let me make this clear. ... If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."
Obama was criticized by other candidates -- Republican and Democrat alike -- including Sen. Hillary Clinton, who responded in a debate a week later, "I think it is a very big mistake to telegraph that, and to destabilize the Musharraf regime which is fighting for its life against the Islamist extremists who are in bed with Al Qaeda and Taliban," and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who said in a Republican debate: "I think Barack Obama is confused as to who are our friends and who are our enemies. ... We're trying to strengthen Musharraf."
For more on the candidates' positions on Pakistan, read this Issue Tracker from the Council on Foreign Relations. Also, this story from The Politico examines how Clinton and Obama have "mixed it up" several times over the issue.