Pakistan: Hair on fire

Let’s connect a few different data points so I can show you why I think events in Pakistan may very quickly come to a head — why I think some quite nasty and direct U.S. military intervention there is now likely, and soon.

I was struck last Friday by this excerpt from Barack Obama’s speech unveiling his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy: “Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that Al Qaida is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.” As I wrote on Friday, that language closely mirrors — and since this was a very important speech, should be read as having been designed to mirror — the language in the infamous Aug. 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief, “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.”

It’s been an article of faith among critics of George W. Bush’s pre-9/11 policy on terrorism that he didn’t take such warnings as a serious spur to action. Richard Clarke has built a post-public service career on assertions that, while the intelligence community had its “hair on fire” in the summer of 2001, the president didn’t act.

How credible are the threats Obama’s “multiple intelligence estimates” perceive? Obviously I’m not the guy who’s going to be able to judge that. But here’s Izzat Khan, a senior aide to Pakistan Islamist leader Sufi Muhammad, telling our Adnan Khan in this week’s extraordinary Maclean’s cover story, “I’ll tell you how we can end this war. If we can get our men close to the U.S., in Venezuela, or Brazil, or Canada, and attack them from there, then they will stop attacking us.” Adnan Khan adds: “Among the TNSM, there are already men who operate clandestinely, shaving off their beards and donning Western clothes.”

And then, as our Mike Petrou pointed out this morning, here’s Baitullah Massud, a leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, calling Western reporters to promise “an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone.”

In the face of these on-the-record threats, which may individually have little specific credibility but which together represent a pretty clear mindset, here’s what Obama said on Friday about U.S. action in Pakistan:

“Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out Al Qaida and the violent extremists within its borders. We will insist that action be taken, one way or another, when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets.”

Hours later a reporter asked Richard Holbrooke: “Does that mean if the Pakistanis will act we will not, and if they do not, we will?” Holbrooke replied: “I just don’t think we can answer that question. It’s speculative, it’s hypothetical, and it would be deeply injurious to our national interest to speculate. But I appreciate the importance of the question, and that’s all we’re ready to say.”

The reporter pressed his luck: “Can you say something about what the President meant by that?” Holbrooke’s reply: “No.”

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