WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- It has been a mixed year for al-Qaida. Its franchise in Iraq looks increasingly isolated, and some U.S. observers are talking openly about it having been defeated; but in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the terror group has reconstituted itself into a global threat.
In Afghanistan, U.S.-led international forces have struggled to maintain the gains they made during a year that they began with a more aggressive strategy.
In his end-of-year news briefing last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged an increase in violence over the past year, but attributed this to "much more aggressive actions on the part of the NATO alliance and the U.S. forces that are there."
He said the much-anticipated Taliban spring offensive had never materialized, in part because it had become "NATO's spring offensive."
Gates said the number of fighters coming across the border in eastern Afghanistan was down "about 40 percent," but added this was because the al-Qaida and Taliban leadership based on the Pakistani side of the frontier "right now seems to have turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on the Pakistani government and Pakistani people."
"There is no question that … al-Qaida has re-established itself" in "some of the areas (along) the frontier," he admitted, but added, "So far we haven't seen any significant consequence of that in Afghanistan itself."
Indeed the consequences have been seen rather in a series of plots -- many of them foiled at various stages -- in Europe.
"Every attack in Europe since 2004," whether successful or disrupted, "has a direct connection to the (Federally Administered Tribal Area on the Pakistan side of the border)," one of the world's foremost experts on the region, Ahmed Rashid, said at a recent conference in Washington.
Both groups of London transit bombers, the so-called airplanes liquid explosive plot, also out of the London, and the German cell recently arrested planning attacks against U.S. bases there all have links back to training facilities in the safe haven al-Qaida established under the noses of a regime that is one of the top U.S. allies in its war on terror: Pakistan.
So far, and largely because -- unlike before Sept. 11, 2001 -- the United States and its allies are really leveraging their ability to use electronic eavesdropping techniques, successful plots have been outnumbered by their foiled counterparts.
But, as the Irish Republican Army once observed after narrowly failing to kill British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "Remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always."
The FATA, home to Pashtun tribesmen renowned as some of the fiercest warriors in the world, has never been really subject to the rule of law imposed from Islamabad -- but recent events, Rashid argues, have destroyed the tribes' traditional political structures and replaced them with a new, highly ideological leadership, which grew, as he put it, "under the shadow of al-Qaida," after Osama bin Laden and his cohorts escaped across the border when the Taliban fell.
Rashid inverted traditional wisdom about transnational terrorist groups. "Al-Qaida needs territory," he said. "Al-Qaida needs liberated areas where you can train, where you can live, where you can bring your women and children, where you can invite guests."
By all accounts, they have just such a territory in Pakistan, and right now they are trying to extend it into the traditionally settled Pashtun areas of the North-West Frontier province.
Gates said he was "beginning a dialogue with the new chief of staff of the Pakistani army" about "how we can help them do a better job in counterinsurgency through both training and equipment."
The Pentagon has already spent $52 million supporting what U.S. Central Command calls the Western Pakistan Security Development Plan.
Nearly $100 million is budgeted for next year, although it remains unclear how much of the money, included in a supplemental request that ended up inside the huge omnibus spending bill, was passed by Congress.
Much of the cash is provided under a special provision, known as 1206 funds, that allows the Pentagon to underwrite other nations' militaries to fight the war on terror.
In addition, there is a $750 million U.S. contribution towards a five-year development plan for the region, funded by the Pakistanis to the tune of $1 billion.
But aid and the benefit of training from the U.S. military, which has now rediscovered counterinsurgency doctrine after more than three bloody and wasted years in Iraq, is only half the tortured story of Pakistani-U.S. relations.
A recent report in The New York Times suggested that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had declared a state of emergency in part to prevent the public exposure by an increasingly outraged Supreme Court of the secret detention system his intelligence services run in close collaboration with the CIA and other U.S. government agencies.
If what Rashid says about the FATA is true -- and there is no reason to doubt it -- then Europe and the United States will have to carry on being lucky for a good while before al-Qaida can be denied its liberated zone in the FATA.
(Part 2 of 2)