New York, June 30 : After the 9/11 air attacks on the US, the Al Qaeda has successively organized itself in the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, with its current strength being close to 2000, including both local and foreign militants, up from several hundred till three years ago.
The two main reasons for this growth of Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas are - the US giving room for President Pervez Musharraf, and occasional shifts in the US' focus on its war-on-terror in Iraq, , said a detailed article in the New York Times.
In March 2002, several hundred bedraggled foreign fighters - Uzbeks, Pakistanis and a handful of Arabs - fled the towering mountains of eastern Afghanistan and crossed into Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area. They soon arrived at Shakai, a remote region in South Waziristan of tree-covered mountains and valleys, and asked local tribesmen if they could rent some of the area's walled family compounds, paying two to three times the impoverished area's normal rates as the militants began to lay new roots.
"They slowly, steadily from the mountainside tried to establish communication," the paper quoted Mahmood Shah, the chief civilian administrator of the tribal areas from 2001 to 2005, as saying.
In many ways, the foreigners were returning to their home base. In the 1980s, Laden and hundreds of Arab and foreign fighters backed by the US and Pakistan used the tribal areas as a staging area for cross-border attacks on Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
The paper quoted Western military officials as saying that Musharraf was often distracted by his own political problems, and effectively allowed militants to regroup by brokering peace agreements with them.
Some former officials say US President George Bush should have done more to confront Musharraf, by aggressively demanding that he acknowledge the scale of the militant threat.
A former US official said he was surprised and frustrated when instead of demanding action from Musharraf, Bush repeatedly thanked him for his contributions to the war on terrorism. "He never pounded his fist on the table and said, 'Pervez you have to do this,'" said the former senior intelligence official who saw transcripts of the phone conversations.
"The story of how Al Qaeda has gained a new haven is in part a story of American accommodation to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, whose advisers played down the terrorist threat. It is also a story of how the White House shifted its sights, beginning in 2002, from counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to preparations for the war in Iraq," the paper said.
It added: "Just as it had on the day before 9/11, Al Qaeda now has a band of terrorist camps from which to plan and train for attacks against Western targets, including the US. Officials say the new camps are smaller than the ones the group used prior to 2001. However, despite dozens of American missile strikes in Pakistan since 2002, one retired C.I.A. officer estimated that the makeshift training compounds now have as many as 2000 local and foreign militants, up from several hundred three years ago."
According to it, senior American and Pakistani officials are of the view that the creation of a Qaeda haven in the tribal areas was in many ways inevitable as the lawless badlands where ethnic Pashtun tribes have resisted government control for centuries were a natural place for a dispirited terrorism network to find refuge. The American and Pakistani officials also blame a disastrous cease-fire brokered between the Pakistani government and militants in 2006.
American intelligence officials say that the Qaeda hunt in Pakistan, code-named "Operation Cannonball" by the C.I.A. in 2006, was often undermined by bitter disagreements within the Bush administration and within the intelligence agency, including about whether American commandos should launch ground raids inside the tribal areas.
Inside the CIA, the fights included clashes between the agency's outposts in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Islamabad. There were also battles between field officers and the counterterrorism center at CIA headquarters, whose preference for carrying out raids remotely, via Predator missile strikes, was derided by officers in the Islamabad station as the work of "boys with toys."
An early arrangement that allowed American commandos to join Pakistani units on raids inside the tribal areas was halted in 2003 after protests in Pakistan. Another combat mission that came within hours of being launched in 2005 was scuttled because some C.I.A. officials in Pakistan questioned the accuracy of the intelligence, and because aides to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld believed that the mission force had become too large.
Current and former military and intelligence officials said that the war in Iraq consistently diverted resources and high-level attention from the tribal areas. When American military and intelligence officials requested additional Predator drones to survey the tribal areas, they were told no drones were available because they had been sent to Iraq.