The government of Pakistan says it has arrested about 30 militants over the past four days, all with ties to the terrorist group blamed for last month's attacks in Mumbai, India.
Two of those allegedly arrested are men whom the Indian government claims were masterminds of the Mumbai attacks.
The U.S. government is praising Pakistan's actions, but says more arrests should follow.
Pakistan As A Threat
Six days a week, President-elect Barack Obama gets a top secret intelligence briefing on threats to U.S. security. The man responsible for preparing it, until this week, was Thomas Fingar, the retiring chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
And it's a good bet that Pakistan was mentioned in that brief just about every day.
"Pakistan may be one of the single most challenging places on the planet," Fingar says.
And then he starts listing some reasons for that assessment:
"The Taliban, the safe havens for terrorists, a fragile government — some would say dysfunctional government — wrestling with ungoverned territories, possessing nuclear weapons, civil-military relations," he says.
In a meeting with a few reporters about the intelligence world he's leaving behind, it seemed Fingar could have gone on for hours about Pakistan's problems.
These are problems that go back for years, and with last month's attacks in Mumbai, the Pakistan challenge has grown much larger. U.S. and Indian intelligence officials say the 10 terrorists known to have carried out those attacks all came from Pakistan and have ties to the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, the "Army of the Pure."
LeT's New Profile
LeT, as the group is sometimes called, has been mostly focused on fighting Indian forces in the disputed region of Kashmir, now shared between India and Pakistan. If the LeT was behind the Mumbai attacks, it means the group is now aiming more broadly.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just returned from discussions in India and Pakistan about the Mumbai attacks and what they indicate about LeT's new profile.
"This wasn't just about India, or India and Pakistan, because they killed Americans," says Mullen. "That's a new threshold. They killed Brits. They specifically targeted a Jewish center. So, again, it raises this outfit, I think, to a much higher level than where it was before."
U.S. officials say the Lashkar-e-Taiba organization was largely founded by the Pakistan government's Inter-Service Intelligence agency, or ISI, which saw Lashkar as a kind of proxy army challenging Indian forces in Kashmir.
Whether the ISI continues to finance LeT is not clear, according to U.S. officials, though some Indian officials claim it does. In any case, the Pakistani government has been reluctant over the years to move against the group. Mullen says he told Pakistani officials during his recent visit that they must now take action, regardless of what official support the LeT group had in the past.
"There's a rich history here of ISI fomenting challenges, particularly in Kashmir, and everybody is aware of that. We're aware of that, the Indians are aware of that, the Pakistanis are aware of that, and it's literally that piece of the previous strategy in Pakistan, which I believe has got to shift for the future," he says.
U.S. Presses India To Give Pakistan A Chance
The U.S. message to Pakistan — relayed by Mullen and by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in separate visits — was that Pakistan had to move aggressively against the Lashkar group, arresting its leaders and closing down the training camps it operates on Pakistan territory. At the same time, the United States is pressing India to give Pakistan a chance before launching any retaliatory military action against Lashkar sites in Pakistan.
In his Pentagon briefing Wednesday, Mullen praised the initial Pakistani arrests of LeT militants.
"They've gotten some of the right people, significant players with respect to LeT. These are first steps, and so there are more steps to follow, but they've moved pretty quickly with respect to these arrests, with respect to shutting down some of the camps. And all of that, I think, is very positive," he said.
A senior U.S. official who's closely monitoring intelligence from the region says the Pakistani action appears to have forestalled any immediate Indian military action inside Pakistan — something that could have ignited a dangerous confrontation between the two nuclear-armed countries.
On that front, our concerns are easing, the official says. But he and others in the U.S. government are still worried — the two senior LeT leaders said to have been detained are apparently only under house arrest, and it's not clear how long the Pakistani government will continue to hold them, or whether they'll be prosecuted or even sent to India.
Plus there are the questions of whether the moves against the LeT militants will be met with new terrorist attacks against Pakistani government targets, and whether this crisis will undermine efforts against the al-Qaida network, which has bases in the Pakistani mountains along the border with Afghanistan.
These are all concerns that will pass soon to the Obama administration.