Pakistan's Peace Plan Could Give Al Qaeda More Freedom

As Pakistan's new government pursues peace deals with Islamic militant leaders in tribal regions along the Afghanistan border, some U.S. counterterrorism officials fear their "worst nightmare" is unfolding: a scenario in which Al Qaeda leaders in the area will have more freedom than ever to recruit and train new members. But the Bush administration is internally divided about how best to approach the situation. U.S. officials say they are particularly alarmed by the new coalition government's negotiations with Baitullah Mehsud, a fierce tribal boss and Qaeda sympathizer based in South Waziristan province whom Pakistan's own government has accused of orchestrating the December 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. (Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, now heads her political party and is one of Pakistan's senior leaders.)

According to several U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing internal debates, many intelligence officials believe the United States must press Pakistan to resist going too far with its accommodations. "We continuously say that this is where bad things happen," said one of the officials. But other administration officials, including State Department diplomats, believe Pakistan's new leadership needs to be given some room to sort out its own problems. "The new government wants to distance itself from the policies of [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf," one senior U.S. official said. "They want to fight terrorism in their own way." The official said that the Bush administration is willing, for a time, to go along with Islamabad's efforts—provided that the government and tribal leaders "enforce" whatever peace deals they strike.

"Silence is probably the best American posture in public," said Bruce Riedel, formerly one of the CIA's top experts on the region, because "it's very clear the new Pakistani government is not going to listen to [Washington] on this issue." On the other hand, he noted, the recent resurgence of terror in the border regions began when Musharraf announced his own peace overtures in 2005. "This is a formula," Riedel said, "whose track record has been discredited."