- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
The Pakistani Taliban’s claim of responsibility for the failed Times Square bombing highlights the potential threat "between some of these organizations and transnational extremism at large," says General David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, who just returned from a visit to Pakistan. Formed in 2007, the Pakistani Taliban has almost exclusively targeted elements of the Pakistani state. But the attack on New York City suggests its ambitions are expanding. "There is clearly a symbiotic relationship between all of these different organizations; al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, TNSM [Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi],"says Petraeus. He added that it’s not surprising that militants would look to wage attacks on American soil. "There are a lot of organizations out there that are wannabe international terrorist organizations," he said, "because that’s how you garner resources."
The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the failed attack in Times Square. What’s your reaction to these claims?
The Pakistani [Taliban] has claimed responsibility for operations in the past, too, for which they were then shown not to have any credit, if you will, or were not behind. We should be very careful about the early claims of the Pakistani Taliban. On the other hand, he [Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, who has been arrested in connection with the failed Times Square plot] is clearly of Pakistani origin, claims to have done certain things, and so again as this case is further investigated and as folks backtrack on various strands of intelligence and so forth, we’ll see where this leads. The interesting thing in this case was there were no threat streams out there. Normally there is at least something in the system, there is some vague, imprecise perhaps, indication that something is afoot.
Does the timing of this attack in any way jeopardize the increasing military-to-military cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan?
The attempted New York attack in Times Square, if anything, may strengthen the relationship. In fact, the Pakistani intelligence services, or its police, quite quickly carried out some operations related to this. It just points out again the threat that potentially may exist between some of these organizations and transnational extremism at large. Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and others are very much transnational organizations. [The Pakistani Taliban] has been much more focused internally, by and large.
Can you elaborate on what this attack says about the militant groups in western Pakistan? Does it suggest that they potentially have broader ambitions?
Many of the groups in this rugged border area, this tribal area of Pakistan and Afghanistan, indeed many groups around the world, have had transnational ambitions. This has always been about developing an Islamic caliphate for some of these organizations. That was certainly one of the motivating factors behind al-Qaeda in Iraq, which of course has suffered some very significant losses in recent months. I don’t think it’s a surprise that there would be ambitions by these individuals. This is also how they garner resources, and now [that] cyberspace is an area in which they can operate, they can communicate; they can solicit donations and recruits and share tactics, techniques, and procedures; coordinate operations and all the rest of that.
We’ve focused so much attention on the threat from al-Qaeda since 9/11. But with groups like the Pakistani Taliban exhibiting transnational ambition, is it possible that the threat is bigger than al-Qaeda?
We focused on a lot more than al-Qaeda in recent years. Those of us who have lived this literally for years have focused on every organization that is out there. In Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq was the bumper sticker, it was the threat of note, but there was also Ansar al-Islam or Ansar al-Sunnah--it had different names at different times--Jaysh al-Islami, and others just in the Sunni extremist elements. And then of course there you had various Shia extremist elements, some of which are tied into transnational extremism as well, in this case enabled by the Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force of Iran, and linking into Lebanese Hezbollah and others. So there are a lot of organizations out there that again are wannabe international terrorist organizations, because that’s how you garner resources. In some cases it’s about power and fame for their leaders as well and to propagate the ideology.
The Pakistani military has been lauded recently for going after some Pakistan-based militants, such as the Pakistan Taliban. But there are other elements that the Pakistanis appear reluctant to target, such as the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. Could the Pakistanis be doing more?
[T]here are a lot of organizations out there that are wannabe international terrorist organizations because that’s how you garner resources.
The developments of the last year in Pakistan are significant in that you saw the people, the leaders, and the bulk of the clerics all recognize the very existential threat that was posed by the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, and some of its allies. This was seen in Swat Valley and what used to be called the Northwest Frontier Province [renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa], and then also in some of the areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, some of the agencies. Certainly, there are some areas it hasn’t gone into in force yet [including some parts of the tribal areas, such as North Waziristan]. Certainly, there are groups it has not dealt with yet. It has a lot of short sticks and a lot of hornet’s nests right now, and it needs to consolidate some of the gains it’s made. Indeed, that’s what the Pakistani army is intent on doing. I just came back from there, spent a very full day with General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kiyani and the other leaders of the Pakistani army and their military. They have a plan, and they have been executing this plan the way that he originally first laid this out to some of us over eighteen months ago on an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea off the southern coast of Pakistan.
Have you seen a shift in the Pakistani army’s thinking about its enemies?
India is still seen as the major state-based threat. In fact they’ve just complete an exercise, some 50,000 Pakistani military forces,similar to the old NATO exercises that we used to run in the days of the Cold War. So there’s no question about the image still in their mind of the threat that is posed by India to their security.
Having said that, the most pressing threat that emerged to their very "writ of governance," as they term it, came to be seen as that posed by the Pakistani Taliban--again, in particular over the course of the last year or eighteen months.
Is it safe to say you would like to see a more aggressive campaign in places like North Waziristan?
There’s a bit of misperception that the Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps have not conducted operations in North Waziristan. In fact they have. Now, it is a fact that the Pakistani army spokesmen famously said a few months ago--in fact literally on the day Secretary [Robert] Gates was arriving in Islamabad--that they were not going to carry out operations there. That has been refuted by General Kiyani. What he meant to say--and what the army leadership has pointed out--is that there won’t be a bulldozer-like operation, there wouldn’t be a D-Day kind of affair as they carried out in eastern South Waziristan and as they’ve carried out to a degree in Orakzai and some of the agencies. Rather, what they would have is a series of targeted operations that indeed they have carried out, and that over time as they would be able to consolidate the gains in these other areas they would be able to expand the security umbrella into North Waziristan as well.
There is clearly a symbiotic relationship between all of these different organizations: al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, TNSM [Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi]. And it’s very difficult to parse and to try to distinguish between them. They support each other, they coordinate with each other, sometimes they compete with each other, [and] sometimes they even fight each other. But at the end of the day, there is quite a relationship between them. And again as they [the Pakistani army] carried out these operations against the Pakistani Taliban, inevitably they have banged into some of these other organizations. Indeed there was a terrible ambush of Pakistani army forces in North Waziristan a week or two ago, and again that indicates the need to do something there. They recognize that, but they again have an awful lot of operations ongoing, and they will deal with this over time.
[I]t’s very difficult to try to distinguish between [the terrorist organizations]. They support each other, they coordinate with each other, sometimes they compete with each other, [and] sometimes they even fight each other. But at the end of the day, there is quite a relationship between them.
Can you talk about military-to-military cooperation between U.S. and Pakistani forces, specifically as it relates to the buildup of troops in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan?
There has indeed been sharing of the plans for Kandahar. We almost hesitate to call it an operation because that gives the sense that there will be some moment when the operation commences. There’s not a D-Day with this. In fact it’s going to be, as best described by General [Stanley A.] McChrystal, a "rising tide of security" as additional forces are introduced: U.S., coalition, Afghan. And then all of that complemented of course by activities by our diplomatic partners, and by our civilian counterparts who are also seeking to enable the Afghans as they strive to improve governance and provision of basic services and to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Are our operations in Afghanistan possible without cooperation on the other side of the border?
There’s no question that with improved coordination and preparations on either side of the border the relative success of operations on either side of the border is higher.
There’s been some reporting to suggest that the Pakistanis might soon move into North Waziristan more aggressively. Would U.S. and international forces be on the other side to support that operation?
I’m not going to get into specific discussion about particular operations, certainly, but we have reached a point where neither side conducts big operations without telling the other, and more importantly, there’s real-time coordination and communication that goes down all the way to battalion level.
What’s the Pakistani army’s and intelligence community’s feeling about reconciliation talks with the Taliban?
If there is to be high-level reconciliation, Pakistan understandably wants to be kept informed and perhaps even play a role. There is a historic relationship between the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization and Pakistani military and other elements of the Pakistani government. Some of these were started initially with our money, at least the initial seeds were planted. The mujahedeen did in some cases transform into these other organizations, some of which are on our side in Afghanistan. There are a lot of great mujahedeen fighters who are now leaders in the Afghan National Army or the police or what have you, but then some others who constitute part of the Taliban or one of the other organizations, the HIG [Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar] or some of the others that we’re combating.
There is no question Pakistan has opinions on which Taliban leaders are in talks with the Afghan government, correct?
Pakistan has distinct interests in Afghanistan. Needless to say, it wants an Afghanistan that’s disposed kindly towards Pakistan; it wants to have a constructive relationship. And given all that, it’s natural that Pakistan would want to have a sense of what would develop if reconciliation at top levels really does develop some momentum, and to have a degree of say in it, given that this is their neighbor, and given that they have relationships with some of these groups that date back a number of years.