Pervez Musharraf has always been a dubious ally in George W. Bush's War on Terror—the kind of guy you avert your eyes from while patting him on the back. It's not that Bush doubts the Pakistani leader's sincerity—"He shares the same concern about radicals and extremists as I do and as the American people do," the president said at an Aug. 9 news conference—it's just that Musharraf is never going to make it into Bush's democracy club. And Musharraf's ability to stop his nation's Islamist radicalism from spilling over into terrorism has always been limited. A genial autocrat who seized power in a 1999 coup and has refused to relinquish his general's uniform, Musharraf has succeeded in keeping Washington on his side by regularly handing over second-tier Qaeda suspects and by keeping tenuous control over his increasingly Islamicized country. But now Musharraf may be losing his grip on power amid rising concerns by senior U.S. officials that a new safe haven for Al Qaeda has emerged in Pakistan's rocky, ungoverned tribal regions, especially Waziristan.
As a result, an increasing number of voices in Washington—from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to hard-line officials in the Bush administration—are calling for unilateral military action inside Pakistan. NEWSWEEK has learned that for weeks Pentagon officials have been debating the current policy of not violating Pakistani sovereignty, coming down in favor of restraint. But some officers in Joint Special Operations Command are "pawing the ground to go into Waziristan," says one Pentagon consultant who is privy to the debate but would speak about classified discussions only anonymously. Congress, meanwhile, has passed legislation that threatens to cut off aid to Pakistan if President Bush can't certify that Musharraf is doing all he can. "It's very humiliating for Musharraf," says retired Pakistani Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. "It could even destabilize him." That's one reason Bush continues to stand by him. Administration officials fear that if Musharraf falls and Pakistan descends into political chaos, then a nuclear-armed state could fail and Pakistan's nuclear know-how might end up in the wrong hands.
Even short of that doomsday scenario, senior U.S. officials, both active and retired, say that without more decisive action Al Qaeda will grow, if not flourish, in the tribal areas. And someday the U.S. homeland will likely be attacked from there, they say, just as Al Qaeda once used Afghanistan as a base from which to plot the 9/11 attacks. In late July a National Intelligence Estimate—a periodic assessment that is considered the most authoritative issued by the U.S. government—concluded Al Qaeda has "regenerated key elements" of its ability to attack the United States from the tribal regions of North Waziristan and Bajaur. Hank Crumpton, a near-legendary CIA clandestine service officer who retired last year as the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, says Washington needs to do more than rely on the Pakistani military and intelligence services. "I'd go in there [tribal areas] with a hard-core counterinsurgency effort," Crumpton told NEWSWEEK. He would seek Pakistan's consent—"but I wouldn't pretend that this is sovereign territory. It is not."
Another recently retired senior CIA official, Bruce Riedel, says that Pakistan remains fatally conflicted about cracking down on Islamic extremists. That's even though Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri (who along with Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the Pakistani tribal areas) has tried to assassinate Musharraf at least twice. As eager as Musharraf may be to get bin Laden and Zawahiri, his enthusiasm is not necessarily shared by Pakistani intelligence. Riedel says: "It has no desire to either take on its Frankenstein or to see its Frankenstein removed."
Pakistani officials angrily dispute that assessment, and they say they are doing all that can be done. They note that some 350 Pakistani soldiers were killed in tribal actions in 2004 and 2005, leading Musharraf to try to reach a peace agreement with tribal elders that has since frayed. "There are no safe havens," Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, told NEWSWEEK, saying the NIE is "absolutely incorrect." "This is preposterous. We will agree there may be odd people in hideouts. But ... whenever we get information we take them out. Even after we signed the agreement, we went into Waziristan and Bajaur five or six times this year. We went after the training camps." Still, Durrani confirmed that the government is very concerned about the extremists "creeping outside the tribal areas" and said Musharraf had launched "a new push" that includes adding 20,000 more paramilitaries to the 100,000 troops already bordering those areas. That, and additional training, "will take about six months," Durrani says.
Whether Musharraf has that much time is another question. Since he faced down an Islamist rebellion at a mosque in the heart of his capital city, Islamabad, he has appeared to lose control of his country's security. Al Qaeda-affiliated armed militants have retaliated strongly, killing nearly 200 people, chiefly police and soldiers, in a spate of IED attacks and suicide bombings in the lawless tribal region along the Afghan frontier, as well as two suicide attacks in Islamabad.
In response, the Pakistani leader has flirted with the idea of declaring a state of emergency that would extend his rule for at least one year, postponing both the presidential election, scheduled for late next month, and the general election, due early next year. The state of emergency would give him sweeping powers and allow him to curb civil liberties sharply. After an early-morning call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Aug. 9, however, Musharraf agreed to back down "for the time being," a U.S. official said, speaking as usual on condition of anonymity about high-level discussions.
Yet another measure of Musharraf's waning power is the eagerness with which he has politically courted a woman he once publicly called a "thief" for alleged corruption during her two terms as prime minister—Benazir Bhutto. In early August Musharraf flew secretly to Abu Dhabi to meet Bhutto, whose secular Pakistani People's Party remains the most popular in the country. Musharraf had been reaching out to Bhutto halfheartedly for a year, but after he summarily ousted the nation's Supreme Court justice in March, provoking widespread demonstrations, his popularity plummeted. Now he seems desperate to bring her into a coalition government that will blunt the calls for his resignation. "Musharraf is in a tough place," says Riedel. "She knows she has the upper hand now." In an Aug. 10 interview, Bhutto said the "ground reality" has changed in Pakistan. She confirmed that she and Musharraf are discussing the creation of a "caretaker government," but said she would not join it "while he is wearing his uniform."
For the United States, the No. 1 concern is figuring out a way to crush the resurgence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan and Bajaur, without doing fatal damage to Musharraf. Some U.S. officials say the Pakistani military is simply not up to the job—but no one else may be, either. "This is a part of the country that has not been effectively governed since Alexander the Great was there," says Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Gastright. Pakistani officials point to the successes they've had inside their cities in arresting Qaeda bigwigs like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Ambassador Durrani says the real fault lies with Washington. After KSM was captured in Rawalpindi in March 2003—just as Bush was invading Iraq—"I think Al Qaeda was almost destroyed in an operational sense. But then Al Qaeda got a vacuum in Afghanistan. And they got a motivational area in Iraq. Al Qaeda rejuvenated. And what Pakistan is getting now is the blowback from that, rather than the other way around." The worry now is that blowback will some day cross the Atlantic—and no one is effectively stopping it.