Global Security Challenges Continue in 2007
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to a look at one of the big issues facing the U.S. and its allies in the year ahead - how to proceed in the war on terror. The last year, the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, ended with Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, still at large.
With us now to look at a region that has reemerged in this past year as the source of real and potential terrorism is NPR intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Good morning.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Let's start with the situation on the Afghan-Pakistan border. It's bad and getting worse by all reports, with the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters enjoying safe haven, able to cross back and forth freely. Now I've seen the border from the Afghan side, you've seen it from the Pakistan side. But tell us what the outlook is for efforts to bring this area under control, which, in a way, is a challenge for Pakistan.
KELLY: It's a challenge for both sides. Pakistani officials will point out there are two sides of the border. But on their side, on the Pakistani side, they have a couple of efforts underway. One is the peace agreements that the Pakistani government has signed with a couple of the tribal agencies along the border.
The Pakistani officials argue these deals will work in terms of trying to rein in militants crossing back and forth across the border. They will work in terms of trying to rein in violence, but you have to give it some time. They admit it's not working yet. And I think the concern is that militants are using that time to expand terrorist training, to fortify alliances with al-Qaida and foreign fighters.
The other, newer Pakistani strategy just unveiled last week is - let's fence the border, mine it, and try to stop terrorist traffic that way.
MONTAGNE: Well, here is the trick with fencing the border. It's an incredibly long border and it's very mountainous, so mining it may deter some folks along some sections, but a fence?
KELLY: That's right. It's 1,500-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, so I think it's true it is certainly going to be very difficult to seal, even if Pakistan sinks a tremendous amount of money and resources into this. And then you have the complication that, across the border, the Afghan government opposes this idea. And then you have the local people who live there, many of whom are Pashtun, they belong to tribes that straddle the border, they don't want to see it walled and their freedom of movement restricted.
MONTAGNE: As all this is going on, there appears to be something of a mini-Taliban state in Pakistan emerging with some kind of scary parallels to Afghanistan in the 1990s.
KELLY: Yeah. You have six million people living in a tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border, the vast majority of them are poor, uneducated and they're living in an area that is increasingly beyond state control. Historically, you had tribal leaders who held sway, but the evidence is that increasingly they are being ignored, or worse, murdered by religious extremists who are sympathetic to the Taliban and to foreign fighters.
We mentioned I was in Pakistan recently, and it seemed just about every day I was there there was some sort of incident, a tribal elder being killed by a roadside bomb. There are explosions in markets, suicide bombings in Peshawar, the major city in the northwest of Pakistan. And that's new, and it appears to point to evidence of growing al-Qaida influence.
MONTAGNE: Realistically, could al-Qaida be regrouping to the point where it could strike the United States again?
KELLY: There is the view that while developments along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan are certainly disturbing, certainly a regional problem, that al-Qaida is probably not in a position to mount operations as far afield as the United States. There is another school of thought, though, that while al-Qaida is weaker than five years ago, it is perhaps stronger than it was a year ago. That it has been able to enjoy this safe haven along the border.
That it is using that safe haven to find new ways to put together operations, to draw in supporters and to inspire splinter groups who may not necessarily be receiving money or direct orders from core al-Qaida leaders, but who, as we saw in the past of couple of years in London, in Madrid, are capable of very dramatic, deadly attacks.
MONTAGNE: And in 2006, this past year, there were no big terror attacks in the West. Is that a trend, or is that a lull?
KELLY: It's certainly true that there were no big attacks in the West. I don't think it was for lack of trying. You know, the most serious thwarted plot was this alleged plot to blow up airplanes leaving Heathrow Airport in London. And there was some skepticism at the time about how imminent that plot really was, but I think as the months has passed and some evidence has emerged that most security experts I speak to have come around to the view that Heathrow was the real deal, that these plotters, whether they were days or month away from attacking isn't clear, but that they were serious.
Now the good news, looking ahead, is that they didn't succeed. And one hopes that that speaks to better intelligence efforts, better security measures actually working. The bad news is, despite all of these security measures and intelligence improvements put in place since 9/11, the terrorists were not deterred from trying again.
MONTAGNE: Mary Louise, thanks very much.
KELLY: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly.
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