McCain Has No Answer For Tackling Al Qaeda Strongholds In Pakistan and Afghanistan

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Sen. John McCain’s speech yesterday attracted a lot of media attention for what he said about Iraq –but it is what he DIDN’T say on Afghanistan and Pakistan that should worry most Americans.

Conservatives like McCain have demonstrated that they may be strong on rhetoric but actually lacking in clear ideas on how to truly tackle the continued threat posed by the global Al Qaeda movement.

As the threat from Al Qaeda becomes more diffuse, U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies have reached a strikingly unanimous conclusion that the core organizational leadership has reformed itself. Its location? Pakistan.


Al Qaeda has, in the words of the Director for National Intelligence’s February 2008 Annual Threat Assessment, “retained or regenerated key elements of its capability, including top leadership, operational mid-level lieutenants, and de facto safe haven in Pakistan’s border area with Afghanistan, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or the FATA.” The CIA, State Department, and Joint Chiefs of Staff have all echoed this warning in recent months. The threat is not exclusive to America: terror plots in Denmark, Germany, and Spain, as well as a score of attacks within Pakistan itself, have all been traced back to the FATA.

If Pakistan represents the center of gravity in the fight against Al Qaeda, you would not be able to tell it from any policies put forth by a conservative political establishment still fixated on Iraq. As Congress’ independent non-partisan investigatory body, the Government Accountability Office, recently concluded, the Bush administration still lacks a unified strategy for dealing with the FATA that incorporates all elements of U.S. national power.

And for most of Bush’s tenure in office, a loyal Congress has abdicated any responsibility for holding the administration accountable for this. In its two years from 2005–2006, the 109th Congress managed to hold just one single hearing on Pakistan in all the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight committees of both the House and Senate combined. Since the shift in power that brought more progressives into the 110th Congress, there have been at least fifteen congressional hearings on Pakistan alone.

McCain, the presumptive leader of the American conservative movement, simply follows in the path of the Bush administration’s lack of attention to what is one of the most pressing national security challenges. A few lines may make it into some speeches, but it is pretty clear that McCain and his team, like most other conservatives, have not given much thought to Pakistan. Senator McCain’s Columbus speech envisions a cooperative government of Pakistan and predicts that after four years of a McCain administration, “there is no longer any place in the world al Qaeda can consider a safe haven”. But the “National Security” issues section of his campaign website is completely empty of references to Pakistan and the Al Qaeda presence there, or of any policies to close the safe havens that exist there now.

When McCain does attempt to directly address Pakistan in speeches or comments to the media, he frequently betrays an ignorance of the complex realities of its internal political challenges. Candidate McCain’s November 2007 Foreign Affairs article laying out his prospective foreign policy agenda makes only passing reference to Pakistan, and suggests that the “Talibanization” of the country is imminent. In fact, militancy in Pakistan is largely concentrated in the FATA, Islamist political parties lost in large numbers in the most recent elections, and both U.S. and Pakistani military officials have dismissed any possibility that the country’s nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of terrorists.


Like President Bush, who has relied on him as an exclusive interlocutor since 2001, McCain credits President Pervez Musharraf with saving Pakistan from itself. McCain has described Pakistan as a “failed state” prior to the assumption of power by then-General Musharraf in a military coup, underplaying the role of the Pakistani military in suppressing democratic forces and its historic support for militant groups operating under an Islamist banner as a means of checking domestic opposition and destabilizing its neighbors.

While conservatives remain fixated on signaling toughness on national security, a look beneath the surface finds that they actually have no clear plan to make America more secure from the Al Qaeda movement that killed three thousand Americans on September 11th. Like President Bush, conservatives remain mired in political rhetoric and posturing, rather than offering a clear strategy to make Americans more secure