A new U.S. intelligence report concludes that al-Qaida's core leadership has regrouped in remote areas of Pakistan and that it still poses a threat to the United States. The National Intelligence Estimate deals with the terrorist threat to the United States mainland. Those judgments raise difficult issues for both Islamabad and Washington.

The small portions of the still-classified report that were released are fueling debate over some of the hottest topics in the public arena, including the war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism, and, perhaps most significantly, some analysts say, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan.

The core judgment in the intelligence estimate is that the United States is in a "heightened threat environment" because al-Qaida has regrouped in remote regions of Pakistan to plot high-value attacks on the United States. A National Intelligence Estimate is the highest collective judgment of the 16 U.S. agencies that deal in intelligence.

The Musharraf Strategy

Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf was already under criticism for taking what was seen in some U.S. political circles as a lax attitude toward the activities of radical Islamists in his country. He opted to cut peace deals with local tribal leaders for them to rein in the cross-border raids into Afghanistan by armed Islamic groups, including the Taleban and al-Qaida.

Tom Fingar, the U.S. Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, says the peace deals underscore the Pakistani government's inability to exert control in the lawless tribal areas that border Afghanistan. "Pakistan's inability to exercise control in the region is the factor. The peace agreement is a manifestation, a reflection of that. I consider them part and parcel of the same problem," says Fingar. 

But as White House press secretary Tony Snow has pointed out, the plan did not work.

Former CIA counter-terrorism chief Robert Grenier, who also served as agency's station chief in Islamabad, tells VOA that it appears General Musharraf has not abandoned that strategy. "I'm not convinced that General Musharraf and the military and the government have yet reached the point where they see no alternative to moving militarily back into those tribal areas. I think they would still would like to play for time and avoid a major confrontation," says Grenier. 

U.S. Strategy

Brian Fishman of the Center for Combating Terrorism at the U.S. Military Academy says the United States must be careful in pressuring General Musharraf to clean out the al-Qaida safe havens. "If we pressure him too much, if Musharraf comes off looking like an American stooge, he will become even weaker. And while he has been sort of an unreliable ally at best, at least he is attempting to be a responsible steward of nuclear weapons and is holding up a bulwark against al-Qaida generally," says Fishman. 

The National Intelligence Estimate has sparked calls in some U.S. political quarters for unilateral American military action against the al-Qaida safe havens in Pakistan. Asked about that recently, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said that no action can be ruled out, including, as he put it, "striking actionable targets."

Robert Grenier says that is a job for Pakistan, not the United States, and will entail a long-term Pakistani military presence in the tribal areas of perhaps as long as 20 years.

"Really, what we're talking about here fundamentally is denial of safe haven. That means somebody needs to occupy that space. I don't see how anybody other than the Pakistan military can do that. The U.S. military has its hands full at the moment trying to do that on a limited basis in Iraq. I just don't see how we can possibly try to do that in a place like North Waziristan," says Grenier. 

A Changing al-Qaida

The intelligence estimate talks about al-Qaida's desire to launch big attacks, but not about its capabilities. But Robert Richer, former second-in-command of CIA clandestine operations, says the strength of "al-Qaida Central," as analysts call it, is very different than it was on September 11, 2001.

"I believe strongly that their capability today is tactically at the level of an infantryman. They're very, very good at ambushes. They're very good at static attacks. They're very good at bombings, the suicide types. But those are tactical efforts," says Richer. "I do not believe that the leadership, while they have the intent and want to carry out the big attacks, has the depth that they had prior to 9/11 or immediately after 9/11."

Richer says the U.S. should continue to support Musharraf, but adds that he does not expect the issue of the Pakistani safe havens to change anytime soon. "I don't see a way ahead, except to continue to support Musharraf the way we are, [to] use technology to try to target these guys. But I'll be honest with you. I think we're going to be in the status quo situation that we're in now a year from today," says Richer. 

General Musharraf is already under domestic political pressure. His order earlier this month to storm the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in the heart of the capital city of Islamabad to root out armed Islamic militants has already provoked new attacks and suicide bombings in Pakistan. He is also taking heat from the secular opposition for his aborted attempt to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.