NEAL CONAN, host:
For months now, missiles fired by CIA drones have repeatedly struck targets in Pakistan. Afterwards, we receive vague reports of so-and-so many foreigners or militants killed and angry protests when civilians are killed. Critics worry that the attacks could be counterproductive and expose the fragile government to charges that it can't defend the country's sovereignty. Up 'til now, we've heard very little about the other side of the equation, what the attacks have accomplished. This morning, NPR intelligence and national security correspondent Tom Gjelten reported that senior U.S. officials claim the airstrikes have decimated al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan and that while things could still change, the group appears to be close to defeat.
So, should the United States continue to attack al-Qaeda wherever it maybe, no matter the price? Call us, 800-989-8255; email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org; click on Talk of the Nation. You can find the transcript to Tom's piece there, too. Tom Gjelten is with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back in the program, Tom.
TOM GJELTEN: Hey, Neal.
CONAN: And these officials do not claim to have killed or captured either Osama bin Laden or his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And al-Qaeda is close to defeat?
GJELTEN: Neal, we always start with number three in this world. Numbers one and two, Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri don't count. We start always with number three. You know, they say that being the number-three guy in al-Qaeda is the most dangerous job in the world because we're always hearing stories about number three being taken out. The truth of the matter is this, that Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri are really off by themselves. In terms of the day-to-day management of the al-Qaeda network - the planning of plots, the dispatching of volunteer fighters, the coordination, the communication - it's really done by this sort of senior to mid-level range of al-Qaeda leaders, not by bin Laden and Zawahiri. And it's that operational leadership of al-Qaeda that they say has been decimated.
CONAN: So, news today of another attack on the Pakistani side of the Khyber Pass that destroyed a bridge that's an important part of the route that the U.S. and NATO use to supply forces in Afghanistan. Again, how does that figure in if al-Qaeda's close to defeat?
GJELTEN: Well, first of all, there's a couple of different sets of targets here. One is the Taliban fighters who are making trouble for U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. So, part of the justification, some of these attacks really have everything to do with the war in Afghanistan, not the war against al-Qaeda. You have to look at the set of targets that are directed - that are al-Qaeda targets, the set of attacks that are really directed against al-Qaeda. That's a separate category. And again, they're not saying they're close to defeat. What they are saying - and this is important - is that they have taken out now so - the strength of al-Qaeda in the past has been its bench strength, the ability that it has to replenish its leadership, to move people up into positions of leadership when those previous leaders are killed.
What they are claiming now is they have taken out so many - not just number three, but number four, number five, number six, number seven - that al-Qaeda is really suffering now a leadership crisis. Now, that is - and as you correctly point out, there's a lot of - this is not definitive; these gains could still be reversed; they have not declared victory; al-Qaeda has not been defeated. But they do say this is the most significant erosion of al-Qaeda's leadership capability in many years.
CONAN: Now, why would they be talking about this in public? This is obviously highly sensitive stuff. The United States never admits openly that it's bombing targets in a sovereign country and ally, Pakistan. Why are they talking about it?
GJELTEN: You know, we've been edging closer to this moment for some time. In the beginning, you know, they wouldn't talk about these strikes at all. Now, gradually, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates actually referred to the strikes last week in testimony. This was, I think, just about unprecedented for the Defense secretary to actually, basically, acknowledge that his strengths are taking place in such a way as to take some ownership of it. I think one of the issues - and I can't say that this is what's behind it - but we do have a new administration. We do have - President Obama is having to make a decision about whether to continue with this campaign. There is opposition to it in Pakistan; there is concern about the diplomatic political consequences, particularly because the Pakistani government is weak. I think the advocates for this campaign, largely in the CIA. want to make the case for how well it's done and why it should continue.
CONAN: Did President Obama make a definitive decision to continue with these kinds of attacks?
GJELTEN: Well, I can't say it's a policy decision to continue indefinitely. He certainly approved another attack since he took office, and he could have vetoed that. So, the preliminary indication, at least on a case-by-case basis, is that he is willing to go ahead with this.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And Abe is with us from Detroit.
ABE (Caller): Yes, how are you guys?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
ABE: I honestly don't think that al-Qaeda is anywhere close to defeat. Their home is Afghanistan, not Pakistan, and just by arguing that, oh, al-Qaeda's close to defeat because we're bombing them in Pakistan, it's not a valid premise. And also, I don't think being in Pakistan is a good idea. Pakistan is close to civil war and close to war with India. And the Muslim population in those areas are livid and very pissed off at the American government for bombing their country in the first place. And it's creating a lot of tension, and I think it's just a total bad idea for them bombing Pakistan and making - just continuing with this policy that they've been doing.
CONAN: A couple of points there, Tom. Abe points out that al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan, which was certainly true some years ago. I think it was just about a year ago, a new assessment came up that they had reestablished training facilities and command facilities in the tribal areas of western Pakistan. And is that right?
GJELTEN: Certainly, my understanding, from all the intelligence reports I've read, is that if there is an operational headquarters for al-Qaeda's senior leadership now, it's in the tribal areas of Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan, but in those mountainous tribal regions. Now, as for the other point that Abe makes, the fallout from these attacks, that can't be disputed and that, you know, that's the cost that has to be considered when you weigh whether this is a, you know, a good idea to continue doing this. Now, all I can tell you is that one of the things the intelligence officials I spoke with about this story told me is that they have seen - that they have picked up evidence of increasing tension in those tribal areas between the traditional tribal leaders there, the local leadership and these foreigners, the Arabs, as they are called, who come in, the al-Qaeda figures from outside Pakistan, who come in and bring down the wrath of the United States on those villages, that this actually has created some new tension between that local tribal leadership and the foreign fighters in that area.
CONAN: And one other point that Abe made, though, is this idea that Pakistan might be more concerned with its eastern border with India than it is with the ongoing operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in its western areas.
GJELTEN: Well, I spoke earlier about the - some of the ways that this could be reversed, and one of them is if the Pakistani military relocates, reorients, redeploys to the line of control with India, there's going to be less pressure in those tribal areas, and this might make it much more difficult for these strikes to continue.
CONAN: Abe, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go now to Drew, Drew with us from Birmingham, Alabama.
DREW (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: OK, go ahead.
DREW: I'd like to know how - if we have affected al-Qaeda in a way that diminishes that ability to fight as an individual organization, how have we impacted organizations that help fund and supply al-Qaeda?
GJELTEN: The - that's - the issue here is the financing of terrorism operations, al-Qaeda, et cetera. This has been, I have to say, Neal, this has been a neglected area in the last couple of years, and I think there's widespread agreement of this within the U.S. government. One of the problems has been that we have not been getting the kind of international cooperation to move against so-called terrorist-financing and money-laundering activities that we'd seen in the past. And this is something I know that the Obama administration really wants to make a new effort to get international cooperation to go after the alleged terrorism financiers.
CONAN: One other part, though, is on training. Your piece this morning suggested that there had just been a new graduating class, if you will, of al-Qaeda fighters. And indeed, the attacks in Mumbai, well, that was - there was a large class, according to the person who got captured alive, and to what extent you believe what was published by the Indians about this, but a large class of people, 32, I think, who graduated in his terrorism class, a group allied to al-Qaeda, only 10 of them were involved in the attacks of Mumbai.
GJELTEN: That's Lashkar-e-Toiba. Now, that's previously been focused almost exclusively on the Kashmir, on these local India-Pakistan issues, but there have been some indications that they're beginning to get interested in kind of more of the global jihad. And you're right, the intelligence officials I spoke to say that it doesn't matter if you'd wiped out everything that al-Qaeda has had in Pakistan, there are already dozens, if not 100l fighters who have completed that preparation and been sent out to carry out missions. Now, those guys are loose cannons; we don't know where they are, what they're doing, and they are allegedly prepared to carry out attacks right now, yeah.
DREW: That's what I was trying to get at and I'm glad y'all touched on that. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Drew. We're talking with NPR's Tom Gjelten about a report he did on Morning Edition today, quoting U.S. officials as saying that the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan has been decimated by attacks by drones operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Steven, Steven with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
STEVEN (Caller): Yeah, thank you for taking my call. I'd like to say that I think that we need to increase the pressure on Pakistan, because obviously we've seen little to no support from their government in attacking these al-Qaeda fighters. And you know, they show outrage when we do attack, but they haven't done anything material to actually take care of these fighters. So, I think that we definitely need to keep up the pressure, regardless of whether or not they're unstable right now. I think there's definitely something to be said for continuing those attacks.
CONAN: And that's what both the Bush and Obama administrations have said.
CONAN: (Unintelligible) al-Qaeda where it is.
GJELTEN: And here's another point, Neal. Pakistan is an important U.S. ally, and we do not want to weaken the government of Pakistan. And I'll tell you this, if the government of Pakistan really wanted these strikes to stop, they would stop. I mean, there are many, many ways that the Pakistani government could insist - actions that the government could do to insist that these - they have not done that. There is a sort of a grudging acceptance by the Pakistani authorities to basically allow, to give a yellow light, to allow, these strikes to continue. It's - you know, it does create political problems for them, but this is not a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan, these strikes. There is a tacit understanding with the Pakistani government that these strikes are going to continue. They don't like it, they're not happy about it, but they are allowing it to - they are allowing these strikes to take place. That's important.
CONAN: As differentiated, there was several months ago a helicopter-borne attack by Special Forces troops inside Pakistani territory, and they made it pretty clear that was unacceptable.
GJELTEN: They actually fired on those troops that were U.S. troops. They were coming into Pakistan, and you know what? There was a plan for more of those actions, Neal. After that, nothing happened. So, they made it clear that was a line that was not going to be crossed.
CONAN: Steven, thanks very much for the call.
STEVEN: Thank you.
CONAN: And Tom, I have to ask you about one other item today, and that's news that Kyrgyzstan has decided the United States will no longer be able to use the Manas Air Base. It's part of the Afghan supply route, a very important part. I think General Petraeus was saying just a week ago that, yes, when we're building up to another 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, that air base is going to be critical.
GJELTEN: That are base is going to be critical. We're looking at possibly as much as another 30,000 troops going to Afghanistan. The air base in Kyrgyzstan is the main air-supply route into Afghanistan right now, into the Bagram base. I think it's probably too early to conclude that, in fact, the Kyrgyzstan government is going to order this base closed. You know, the president of Kyrgyzstan made these statements after coming out of a meeting with Russian President Medvedev. And it's clear the issue that he raised was compensation. This is about dollars. They're now getting some $63 million a year in rent. They obviously want more money. I think the United States is willing to pay more money. I don't think we've seen the last of this story yet. You know, it's interesting, Neal. I visited that base in March 2002, just shortly - when it was being rebuilt. This is an old - it was an old Soviet air force base, totally run down. It had not been taken care of in years. United States Air Force came in, completely built it, but it does have a 13,000-foot runway, which is a real asset in that part of the world.
CONAN: And interesting that the president of Kyrgyzstan made this announcement just after news that he was receiving billions of dollars in fresh aid from the Russian government.
GJELTEN: We're in a bidding war here, Neal.
CONAN: NPR's intelligence and national-security correspondent Tom Gjelten with us here in Studio 3A. You can hear his report from today's Morning Edition at npr.org. Tomorrow, short-term jobs and freelance gigs; welcome to the gig economy, plus why just boots on the ground and bullets may not be enough to win in Afghanistan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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