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'All bets are off if terrorists hit US'

world Updated: Sep 29, 2010 23:42 IST
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President Barack Obama dispatched his national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, and CIA Director Leon Panetta to Pakistan for a series of urgent, secret meetings on May 19, 2010.

Less than three weeks earlier, a US citizen born in Pakistan had tried to blow up an SUV in New York’s Times Square. The crude bomb did not explode. Only luck had prevented a catastrophe.

“We’re living on borrowed time,” Jones told Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at their meeting in Islamabad. “We consider the Times Square attempt a successful plot because neither the American nor the Pakistani intelligence agencies could intercept or stop it.”

Jones thought Pakistan was playing Russian roulette. The chamber had turned out to be empty the past several times, but it was only a matter of time before there was a round in it.

PAKISTAN CANCER

Fears about Pakistan had been driving Obama’s national security team for more than a year. Obama had said toward the start of his fall 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review that the more pressing US interests were really in Pakistan, a nuclear power with an intelligence service that sponsored terrorist groups.

Not only did Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban operate from safe havens within Pakistan, but — as US intelligence officials had repeatedly warned Obama — terrorist groups were recruiting Westerners whose passports would allow them to move freely in the West.

Safe havens would no longer be tolerated, Obama had decided. “We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan,” he declared during an Oval Office meeting on November 25, 2009. The reason to create a secure Afghanistan, he said, was “so the cancer doesn’t spread there.”

FOUR DEMANDS

Jones and Panetta had gone to Pakistan to tell Zardari that Obama wanted four things to help prevent a terrorist attack against the US: full intelligence sharing, more reliable cooperation on counterterrorism, faster approval of visas for US personnel travelling to Pakistan and, despite past refusals, access to airline passenger data.

If the SUV had blown up in Times Square, Jones told Zardari, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Should a future attempt be successful, Obama would be forced to do things that Pakistan would not like.

“No one will be able to stop the response and consequences,” the security adviser said. “This is not a threat, just a statement of political fact.”

The Obama administration had a “retribution” plan, one of the most sensitive and

secretive of all military

contingencies.

The plan called for bombing about 150 identified terrorist camps in a brutal, punishing attack inside Pakistan.

Wait a second, Zardari responded. If we have a strategic partnership, why in the face of a crisis like the one you’re describing would we not draw closer together rather than have this divide us?

ZARDARI’S PRICE

Zardari believed he had already done a great deal for the US, at some political risk. He had given a green light for CIA drones targeting senior Al Qaeda leaders. “Kill the seniors,” Zardari had said. “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

The Pakistani military was billing the United States more than $2 billion a year to combat extremists. But elements of the Pakistani intelligence service were still backing the two Afghan Taliban groups responsible for killing American troops in Afghanistan.

Jones said, “It may be politically difficult, but it’s the right thing to do if you really have the future of your country in mind. And that is to reject all forms of terrorism as a viable instrument of national policy inside your borders.”

“We rejected it,” Zardari responded.

TALIBAN LINK

Whatever Pakistan was doing with the many terrorist groups operating inside its borders, it wasn’t good enough.

Panetta pulled out a “link chart,” developed from FBI interviews and other intelligence, that showed how Tehrik-e-Taliban had assisted the Times Square bomber. “Look, this is it,” Panetta told Zardari. “This is the network. Leads back here.” He traced it out with his finger. “And we’re continuing to pick up intelligence streams that indicate TTP is going to conduct other attacks in the US.”

This was a matter of solid intelligence, Panetta said, not speculation.

Jones and Panetta then turned to the disturbing intelligence about Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks that had killed over 160, including six Americans.

Pakistani authorities are holding the commander of the Mumbai attacks, Jones said, but he is not being adequately interrogated and “he continues to direct LeT operations from his detention center.” Intelligence shows that Lashkar-e-Tayyeba is threatening attacks in the United States and that the possibility “is rising each day.”

Zardari didn’t seem to get it.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi explained:” They’re saying that if, in fact, there is a successful attack in the United States, they will take steps to deal with that here, and that we have a responsibility to now cooperate with the US.”

“If something like that happens,” Zardari said defensively, “We’re still partners.”

No, both Jones and Panetta said. There might be no way to save the strategic partnership. Underscoring Jones’s point, Panetta said, “If that happens, all bets are off.”

KAYANI’S CALL

Afterward, the Americans met privately with General Ashfaq Kayani, the most powerful figure in the country.

Kayani was a product of the Pakistani military system. After nearly 40 years of staring east to the threat posed by India it was hard for a Pakistani general to put down his binoculars, turn his head over his shoulder and look west to Afghanistan.

Jones told Kayani the clock was starting now on Obama’s four requests. Obama wanted a progress report in 30 days, Jones said.

Kayani would not budge much. He had other concerns. “I’ll be the first to admit, I’m India-centric,” he said.

(This article is based on the book Obama’s War.)

( In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post. For additional content, visit www.washingtonpost.com )

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