Impact of the U.S. Airstrike on Relations with Pakistan

Steve Inskeep talks with Peter Bergen, journalist and fellow at the New America Foundation, about the recent airstrike in Pakistan and how it might affect diplomatic relations between the United States and Islamabad.

INSKEEP: We're going to look more closely this morning at a news item from recent days. American missiles struck a village in Pakistan last Friday. It was apparently a failed attempt to kill al-Qaida's number two leader. Pakistani authorities now say they believe four or five foreign terrorists were among those killed. But the killing of civilians prompted protests, and now a statement of disapproval from Pakistan's Prime Minister.

The journalist, Peter Bergen, who studies bin Laden has also been tracking this fight, and he is with us. Welcome to the program.

Mr. PETER BERGEN (Journalist): Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: First, I suppose we should mention that this strike is not the only recent air strike of its kind, right?

Mr. BERGEN: No. I mean, there have been a number of these, three or four in Pakistan in the last several months. The Predator, which may have been involved in this, and the armed Predator, has been kind of effective, because the Predator itself is equipped with a video camera, so you have real time information.

INSKEEP: Let's explain the technology here. We're talking about an aircraft that some people might think of as a drone. There's no pilot.

Mr. BERGEN: Right. And equipped with a video camera, so you have real time video, and now those are armed with Hellfire missiles. What exactly caused the strike on Friday we don't know yet, but I think I'm sure a Predator was involved. Clearly, the CIA felt that it had pretty good information about Zawahiri's presence in this area.

INSKEEP: Ayman al-Zawahiri, the...

Mr. BERGEN: Number two...

INSKEEP: Number two man...

Mr. BERGEN: al-Qaida leader. Maybe he popped out for a kabob, who knows. (laughter) It looks like it was a mistake, at least that's what the Pakistanis are saying.

INSKEEP: So if you're the CIA, you get this information that you think Zawahiri is there. You arrange for a Predator to be overhead. You fire the missile whenever you do. How do you then find out if you got your man?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, Time Magazine is reporting something that I think makes a lot of sense, which is Zawahiri has a brother who's in prison right now in Egypt. And, they've taken DNA samples from him, and presumably there will be a process for a DNA match. If you look at the pictures of that site, where this missile landed, I mean, whoever was there has sort of been atomized. If Zawahiri had been killed, I think that the Jihadist's in Al-Quaida would actually announce it. You know, either we will hear from him on a tape or we won't hear from him, and I think al-Qaida itself would actually announce that he's dead.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the geography here, the basics. The Northwest Frontier Province, it's along the border with Afghanistan. What kind of territory is it?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is 1,500 miles long. It's like the distance between Washington and Denver. And this is a pretty long border, so half of that border is made up by the Northwest Frontier Province. It's a very hard country, not a lot of vegetation. It's mountainous; it's a sort of flinty, rocky kind of environment. You know, peopled by tribes who are quite suspicious of outsiders, who have had a history of not being ruled by anybody.

INSKEEP: What reason do United States officials have to continue to believe that al-Qaida figures or Taliban figures are hiding there?

Mr. BERGEN: I'm a little skeptical about some of that myself. All the senior Al-Qaida leaders that have been found have been found in major Pakistani cities. I'm not saying that bin Laden or even Zawahiri aren't in the tribal areas, but I'm saying it's sort of interesting that none of the leading, senior Al-Qaida figures that have been captured or killed so far in Pakistan have been found anywhere but in major Pakistani cities.

INSKEEP: As someone who interviewed Osama bin Laden years ago and has written a couple of books about him, people must ask you from time to time where you think he is.

Mr. BERGEN: Well I think he's in Pakistan, which is like saying he's somewhere west of the Mississippi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: It's a huge, huge country.

Mr. BERGEN: It's a huge country. And why haven't we found him four years after 9-11? He's a bright guy, he's an intelligent guy. He's not making obvious errors. He's not talking on his cell phone, his SAT phone. The people around him are not motivated my money; we've had a cash reward up for millions of dollars beginning in 1999, and no takers. But it's interesting, we haven't heard from him for a year, and to me, that suggests that, you know, he's well aware of the fact that one way he can be found is the chain of custody of these video tapes and audio tapes.

INSKEEP: Chain of custody. If Osama bin Laden, say, makes a videotape, he's got to hand it to somebody who's got to carry out to somebody else who carries it to a television station.

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. We, I think we've done a not particularly stellar job of tracing this chain of custody. And maybe this Zawahiri strike is an example of actually being able to trace the chain of custody of the audiotapes, videotapes that he has been recently making. But, you know, between the two of them, Al-Qaida's top leaders, Ayman Al Zawahiri and bin Laden have released something like 30 audiotapes and videotapes, since 9-11. And it doesn't require you to be Sherlock Holmes to realize that some of these are going to Al-Jazeera's bureau in Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Based on your reporting, are Americans confident that they're getting all the information from Pakistan that Pakistan's government has about Al-Qaida?

Mr. BERGEN: That's a tough one. You know, the Pakistani government ha said a lot of, I mean Musharraf himself has said bin Laden is dead, he's alive, he's dead, he's alive, you know. Part of the problem is, of course, that it's a hard country to govern. And so a lot of the information that comes out of there, I think, is erroneous. I mean, particularly about Al-Qaida. It's not that they're sort of trying to hide things, necessarily. I think there's a high degree of incompetence.

INSKEEP: Peter Bergen is the author of The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al-Qaida's Leader.

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