A strong strategic rationale actuated Washington's blanket terror warning to Europe of Sunday, Oct. 3. But the way it evolved reflected the current interplay among the leading American personalities who devised it.
Both angles are examined by DEBKA-Net-Weekly through its Washington sources.
As the US-led Afghanistan War marks its 10th anniversary on Oct. 7, 2010, the decisive battle ahead of negotiations on the country's future between the United States and the insurgent Taliban is getting underway, a turning-point in the war which has not been publicly heralded as such as it . Its outcome will determine how the cards fall when the fighting is over. Under serious discussion now is a proposal for the north to remain in American hands for an indefinite period, the center and south to fall under Taliban control and for Kabul to be a neutral city with a mixed presence of all the parties.
The prerequisite of the new strategy for Afghanistan President Barack Obama launched in December 2009 was for Taliban to come to negotiations from a position of military weakness. The president allowed the US command until August 2011, when he promised the American people to start pulling the US military out of Afghanistan, to clobber the insurgent forces into a position of inferiority.
Now, with only 10 months left up to that target date, the US president acceded to the request of Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces, to shorten the war by ramping up cross-border air attacks on Taliban's logistic bases and sanctuaries in Pakistan's North Waziristan.
Angry Pakistani reaction was no surprise
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report that President Obama knew his green light would elicit an angry reaction from Islamabad – and indeed Islamabad on Thursday, Sept. 30, blocked the two main passes through which NATO supply convoys reached Afghanistan. Yet he approved the cross-border air offensive nonetheless after General Petraeus assured him that the troops had enough equipment, fuel and munitions stocked or available (including recent deliveries from Iraq) to last them until the first winter snows arrived in early or mid-December.
Petraeus' most compelling argument for haste was that if the war was not won in the next two months, it would take years. He also convinced Obama that as long as the Taliban can rely on the Haqqani network and other supportive militias, it will prefer to fight on rather than sit down for talks. Up until now, US forces have left the Haqqani fighters alone because of their ties with the Pakistani military, but here, too, the White House agreed that the time of reckoning was here and it was now or never for knocking the legs from under the insurgent movement.
"The table is all set and ready," Petraeus told the President. "Now we just have to get the Taliban to come to it. But they won't come alone."
This was a reference to the secret indirect talks Taliban have been holding for some months with the Americans via the Saudis and the Pakistanis (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 462 of Sept. 24, 2010: US-Saudi Plan to Airlift Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan… Saudi Arabia is Ready to Host Them).
Now to build a cover story
A senior source in Washington familiar with the content of the discussions between the president and Petraeus told DEBKA-Net-Weekly on condition of anonymity that the general had likened North Waziristan to Anbar Province in northwestern Iraq. Until Al Qaeda was beaten in that province, presaging its defeat in central Iraq in the years 2005-2007, the American "surge" in Iraq teetered on the brink of failure.
In North Waziristan, Petraeus said, smashing Taliban and local allied forces on the Pakistan side of the border is the key to success in Afghanistan, particularly in the south which has a common border with North Waziristan.
The big difference between the two conflicts is this, the general noted: Whereas in Iraq, the local Sunni tribes, especially in Anbar province, were ready to collaborate with the Americans out of fear of al Qaeda, this is not the case in North Waziristan. Therefore, the local militias will have to be pummeled until their leaders cry out that they can't take any more US military pressure.
This mission can be accomplished entirely by aerial strikes, according to Petraeus, provided helicopters are used to augment the drones.
After this stage of combat in Afghanistan was settled, it became necessary to build a cover story to justify the heavy US tactics against Pakistan-based targets. The task fell to two senior American officials, Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta and the president's assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan.
Petraeus, Panetta and Brennan and their teams put their heads together and came up with this formula: Intensified American air strikes over North Waziristan would be accounted for by incoming intelligence forewarning terrorist attacks in major European cities that originated in Al Qaeda and allied local networks embedded in those Pakistani tribal lands.
The imprecise, unspecific US terror scare did not impress Europe
This line offered two benefits: Europe, where public interest in the Afghanistan War is flagging, would see the United States as the principle Western force fighting terror. They would also understand the importance of the Afghanistan War for containing the spread of violence out to Pakistan and reaching their own homes in Europe.
But this scenario took off on the wrong foot. It then continued to veer badly off course.
In the first place, the three members of the band, Petraeus, Panetta and Brennan, did not play the same tune. Each took care to be in line for personal kudos if the maneuver worked and avoid the flak if it failed.
While Petraeus and Panetta kept their uncertainties under their hats and cooperated with one another, John Brennan went off on an aggressive tangent.
He issued a welter of leaks to the media without coordinating them with either partner.
Items appeared on US media front pages and newscasts – and were, quickly picked up in Europe – describing al Qaeda cells as having already departed North Waziristan and arrived at major European cities ready to strike.
Some said Mumbai-style multiple strikes were threatened by several coordinated teams of gunmen like the assault which killed 174 people in the Indian port city in 2008. Others "discovered" that Osama bin Laden had handpicked the terrorists for these operations. Yet others were certain that the terrorists' commanders in their Pakistan bases had pushed the green button for the operations to go ahead and they were now imminent and unstoppable.
One headline screamed that gunmen were converging in Europe to spray death in five major European airport terminals.
All this happened a week after American air strikes in North Waziristan had quietly begun escalating to include Apaches.
(The first helicopter assault was launched Sept. 27 against Taliban forces returning to their Pakistan havens from battles in Afghanistan. At least 30 fighters died, most of them from the Haqqani network.
The next day, Apaches struck the Haqqani base in the Kurram district of the province.
Thursday, Sept. 30, saw a third helicopter attack which mistakenly killed three Pakistani Frontier troops.)
It was the third attack which put the lid on it for Islamabad which thereupon slammed shut the two frontier passes to NATO supply convoys.)
Brennan's personal ambition gingered up the publicity
This flood of convoluted and contradictory leaks quickly undermined the entire scheme's credibility. That was the first serious snag in the plan.
The second grew out of the personal ambition of John Brennan who, according to Washington sources referred to by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, is aiming high for the post of National Security Adviser to the President in place of Gen. James Jones.
Those sources rate his chances of winning the post as better than good. It is only a matter of time before Jones vacates the seat and Obama appears to have already decided to hand it to his adviser on counterterrorism.
Brennan calculated that a winning military offensive in North Waziristan coupled with a successful counter-terror wake-up drive in Europe would imbue his entry to the new job with the right sort of prestige.
Since his aides have tagged Panetta as a leading contender for the post of national security adviser, they decided to play their cards close to their chests rather than sharing their publicity tactics with the CIA chief.
Confusion consequently prevailed in anti-terror circles in Berlin, London, Rome and Paris, the last of which has been on high alert for some weeks over threatened Al Qaeda attacks from North Africa.
All their intelligence chiefs and terrorist fighters decided to handle the US alert for Europe with the utmost caution until they could find out what it was really all about.
Over the weekend, word began coming in from embassies and other sources that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was furious about the whole scheme. She first dragged her feet about signaling the terror advisory to Americans in Europe and, only after President Obama's intervention, agreed to her department issuing a modified and qualified travel warning on Sunday, October 3.
France settles scores with Britain
The British government led the way for its dissemination, announcing ahead that the UK, France and Germany were under imminent threat of a multiple al Qaeda attack. Paris and Berlin were not at all happy to find their anti-terror strategy hijacked by London and Washington for reasons that had nothing to do with the real threats to their countries.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere was the most outspoken. He said on Monday, October 4 that there are currently no indications of any immediate threat of attacks planned against Germany. There is no reason whatsoever to be alarmist at the moment, he insisted.
Two days later, France exhibited its fine sense of irony by issuing a travel advisory warning French citizens to be vigilant for terrorists while traveling in… London.
Wednesday morning, when al Qaeda did strike, it was not in Europe at all but in Sanaa, Yemen, where a bomber on a bicycle attacked the British embassy convoy and gunmen killed a French man in the compound of an Austrian oil company.
Meanwhile, the American operation in North Waziristan is ongoing. Because of the news blackout it is hard to determine how well it is going. However, the scheme for drumming up a terrorist scare in Europe to complement the war drive in Pakistan keeps on springing holes at the rate of roughly one a day.