CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Atlantic Council this afternoon that al Qaeda’s safe haven in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas have provided a “sanctuary” that has “allowed it to recover some capacity lost when expelled from Afghanistan” nearly seven years ago.
It has developed a “close, co-dependent relationship with Pashtun extremist and separatist groups” through very careful exploitation of cultural norms, respect for tribal leaders and, increasingly, intermarriage.
“Let me be very clear,” Hayden said, “Today, virtually every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas.”
He stressed, however, that this is a complex situation. While the problem looks easy from thousands of miles away, it’s extremely difficult up close because of the tribal issues. Hayden believes the Pakistani government has been extraordinarily helpful in responding to this challenge. Their plan, which they started to implement in 2006, to slowly expand their reach over the FATA would have been wise and far-reaching were it not for the extreme urgency of the threat. Further, we’ve killed and captured more top al Qaeda operatives with the support of the Pakistani security forces than anywhere else in the world.
What remains unclear, however, is what the end game is.
Al Qaeda was chased out of Yemen in the 1990s only to reconstitute in Afghanistan. It was run out of Afghanistan in 2001, only to disperse, setting up a rump headquarters in Pakistan and declare Iraq the “central front” of its effort. Hayden today declared that al Qaeda in Iraq was “on the verge of strategic defeat” but that we’re now facing the inevitable “bleed out problem,” with its forces deploying elsewhere.
Where, then, does it stop? Or is this simply a case, to use an analogy that Hayden employed in a different part of his talk, a case of “perpetual penalty kicks?”
Hayden closed his appearance by noting, quite simply, that the intelligence business is very hard. Questions to which the answers are known with a high degree of confidence don’t even get to his level. Instead, he has to deal with things “somewhere between a mystery and an enigma.” Graded on a curve, the intelligence community is doing quite well. Unfortunately, graded on an absolute scale, it “always fails.”
Perhaps the answer to the question comes from another observation that Hayden made later in his remarks. After outlining progress that has been made against al Qaeda and its allies on various regional fronts, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, he observed that the key battle was on the “ideological front,” which he termed “the deep fight.” He believes that the last year has provided “clear and mounting evidence” that we’re winning here because “authentic voices” — respected Muslim leaders — are speaking out against the “un-Islamic” barbarity of al Qaeda. The upshot of this is that it “can only subsist beyond the reach of civilization and the rule of law.”
Presumably, then, we will win this battle by gradually eliminating such places. Needless to say, we have a long way to go.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.