Action or intelligence? By Cyril Almeida

BUSH already has; Obama says he will; Hillary Clinton said she would; Palin thinks she absolutely should; and McCain probably will but won’t talk about it.

Launch raids in Fata on ‘actionable intelligence’ to capture or kill high-value terrorist targets, that is.

The debate is as old as the war in Afghanistan; however, it was given a public face by Barack Obama last summer. Locked in a bitter contest with Hillary Clinton, Obama was being pummelled for suggesting he would meet leaders of rogue nations without preconditions in his first year as president; Clinton even accused Obama of being “irresponsible and, frankly, naive”. Obama used a major speech at the Woodrow Wilson Centre last August to respond. It was there that he uttered the fateful words on actionable intelligence.

For those Pakistanis who fear being caught in the crosshairs of the American military juggernaut it was an astonishing speech. Not so much because Obama said anything contrary to Washington conventional wisdom, but that he — a candidate with a realistic chance of capturing the White House and therefore having to deal with Pakistan — was laying down such a clear marker against Pakistan. In the speech meant to unveil his foreign policy and national security agenda, Obama used the word ‘Iraq’ 24 times, ‘Afghanistan’ 14 times — and ‘Pakistan’ 13 times. The senator promised to “wage the war that has to be won” by “getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Suddenly, a major non-Nato ally had been declared a battlefield.

Then came the sentence that shook Pakistan: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” With it Obama’s foreign policy became ‘muscular’ and the Democratic agent of hope and change had outdone the brashest of Republican. Obama has since repeated his formulation countless times, albeit replacing Musharraf with Pakistan after the general’s forced resignation. It has taken on a life of its own in the media echo chamber and given some Pakistanis recurring nightmares of a Democrat, traditionally viewed as weak on foreign policy, trying to out-macho the Republican Bush.

Some have seen restraint in the ‘if you won’t act, we will’ caveat. But most have overlooked the actionable intelligence part, which is arguably where the idea originated from. Three weeks before Obama’s speech at the Wilson Centre, The New York Times (NYT) made a dramatic revelation: in early 2005, a secret American military mission to capture top Al Qaeda leaders, including Ayman Al Zawahiri, in North Waziristan was aborted by Defence Secretary Rumsfeld.

Zawahiri and co had allegedly arrived in North Waziristan to attend a meeting but Rumsfeld aborted the ‘snatch and grab’ mission at the last minute — after “members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan”. The NYT story claimed Rumsfeld was concerned that sending several hundred troops (necessary to secure the mission) would convulse US-Pakistan relations, with unpredictable consequences. Political expediency had apparently trumped a potentially great military success.

This was the interpretation that Ben Rhodes, a 30-year-old wunderkind who is Obama’s chief foreign policy speechwriter, clearly leapt on as he prepared Obama’s speech. Indeed, the sentence immediately before the ‘if they won’t act, we will’ warning is: “It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an Al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005.”

Unfortunately for Pakistan, Rhodes ignored a vital part of the NYT story: two and a half years after the aborted raid, American intelligence was still “not certain” if Zawahiri had been present in North Waziristan. The actionable intelligence on which the Americans came perilously close to acting — and perhaps committing a terrible mistake — was based on communications intercepts that simply gave intelligence officials “unusually high confidence” that Zawahiri was at the meeting. A recurring theme of the NYT story was how poor the American intelligence has been in Fata; in fact, to shore up poor intelligence, “in early 2006, President Bush ordered a ‘surge’ of dozens of CIA agents to Pakistan.”

Some may recall the infamous Damadola strike. On Jan 13, 2006, Predator missiles struck Damadola, a village in Bajaur Agency. The target? Ayman Al Zawahiri, allegedly visiting the home of one Bakhtpur Khan. The Pakistan government claimed that four foreign militants were killed; however, locals claimed that the nearly two dozen dead were civilians, including children. Musharraf stuck to the American script even a month later, telling tribal elders in Charsadda that “five foreigners were killed in the US attack on Bajaur”.

Conventional wisdom had by then identified four of the ‘dead’ Al Qaeda men: Midhat Mursi Al Sayid Umar, an Egyptian with a $5m bounty on his head; Abu Obaidah Al Masri, an Egyptian responsible for plotting attacks in the West; Khalid Habib, a field commander in Afghanistan; and Zawahiri’s son-in-law, Abdul Rahman Al Maghribi.

It was a lethal hoax. American actionable intelligence had done its worst. From The Washington Post in September 2007: “US and Pakistani officials now say that none of those al-Qaeda [sic] leaders perished in the strike and that only local villagers were killed.” Given time to reflect, Mahmood Shah, Fata security chief in 2006, had changed his mind: “I just think the information was not correct.”

What happened? Eight months before Damadola, Pakistani security agents, some allegedly dressed in burqas, nabbed Abu Faraj Al Libbi, a Libyan Al Qaeda leader. Libbi was handed over to the Americans (he is currently in Guantanamo) and is reported to have told interrogators that he met Zawahiri at Bakhtpur Khan’s house in Bajaur. Cue the Predator missiles — which exploded amongst families gathered to celebrate Eid.

Surely Rhodes, Obama’s speechwriter, knew at least some of this inglorious history of American actionable intelligence in Fata. Anthony Lake, a former national security adviser to President Clinton and Obama’s top foreign policy adviser, certainly did. Any regrets then for their dangerous prescription? On the contrary, they are proud of it. An Obama adviser had this to say to The American Prospect in March about the backlash against the senator’s comments: “He takes policy positions that are a break from both rigid orthodoxy and the Bush administration. And everyone says it’s a gaffe! That just encapsulates everything that’s wrong about the foreign policy debate in Washington and in Democratic politics.” Rhodes gushed that it was a “seminal moment”; Obama thought it was the right policy, claimed Rhodes.

Since then the Angoor Adda raid in South Waziristan has exposed the Obama canard of a break from Bush — and the continuing problems with actionable intelligence. Might McCain be a better friend to the hapless tribesmen of Fata? No. After the disastrous January 2006 Damadola strike, McCain said on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’: “It’s terrible when innocent people are killed; we regret that…. We apologise, but I can’t tell you that we wouldn’t do the same thing again.”

Source: Daily Dawn, 8/10/2008

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