Why a Terrorist Strike on Europe Risks Geopolitical Meltdown

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Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

Policemen patrol near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate on Oct. 4, 2010

Bad as they are, right now, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan could get a whole lot worse if a feared Mumbai-style terrorist plot materializes in Europe.

One reason for the fraying of ties is the dramatic escalation in the Obama Administration's drone war in Pakistan's tribal areas. September saw more missiles fired from drone aircraft than any month on record, purportedly aimed at disrupting possible terrorist attacks planned for European cities — fear of which has also prompted travel alerts by the U.S. and allied governments. And the campaign has not relented. Pakistani officials claim that eight suspected militants of German citizenship were killed in a drone strike on a Waziristan mosque on Monday.

The drone attacks have fueled outrage on Pakistan's streets, and presumably within its armed forces too. The anger has only grown with news of Pakistani soldiers killed as the U.S. pursues Afghan Taliban fighters fleeing into Pakistan (last Thursday, such a chase resulted in the death of three Pakistani soldiers). Pakistani authorities appeared to be sending out a warning by closing their Khyber Pass border with Pakistan, choking off the main supply line to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. And militants kept up their own retaliation on Wednesday by destroying NATO-contracted fuel trucks for the sixth time in a week. But tensions could rise from both ends, should a successful attack be staged in Europe.

Explaining the recent terrorism-threat alerts and travel advisories announced for European cities, security officials have been widely quoted in the media suggesting that intelligence points to a coordinated attack, originating in Pakistan, that would see gunmen deployed to wreak havoc on the streets of major European cities in the way that they did in the Indian city of Mumbai two years ago. Drone attacks have reportedly been stepped up in the hope of disrupting that plot, allegedly revealed by a captured German of Afghan descent.

Following the Mumbai massacre, carried out by the Pakistan-based jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, the U.S. had to work hard to restrain India from retaliating by bombing facilities in Pakistan used by the various Kashmir jihadist groups long cultivated by Pakistani intelligence — mindful of the danger that such an action could provoke a war between the nuclear-armed neighbors. But if Western cities were the target of a successful strike, it would be NATO that would be under pressure to respond. Indeed, according to Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, Obama's National Security Adviser General Jim Jones told Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari that if Faisal Shahzad (the Pakistani-American sentenced to life imprisonment in New York City on Tuesday) had succeeded in his attempt to bomb Times Square last year, the U.S. "would [have] been forced to do things Pakistan would not like." Woodward wrote that retribution would entail the bombing of "up to 150 known terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan." If Jones' warning, as reported by Woodward, is to be taken seriously, it's not hard to deduce that a series of attacks in Europe that emanate from Pakistan would force a similar response.

The context of Jones' conversation with Zardari, of course, was to push the Pakistanis to do more to tackle militants based in North Waziristan, a cancer that U.S. officials warn could metastasize to topple the nuclear-armed state. But Pakistan has been reluctant to mount a full-blown offensive, fearing that going to war in the tribal areas is the riskier option. And the dramatic uptick in drone attacks is a reflection of the fact that the Administration's entreaties have failed to persuade Pakistan's generals to march into North Waziristan, a hotbed of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity but also of a Pashtun tribal militancy deeply hostile to outside authorities, whether they be the central government of Pakistan or the U.S. military.

While U.S. officials like to argue that the war in Afghanistan is necessary to help prevent Pakistan falling to the militants, the Pakistani security establishment tends to see that war — and the resultant demands it has placed on Pakistan by a popularly detested American ally — as the cause of, rather than the solution to, Pakistan's domestic instability. Open cooperation with the U.S. war effort is politically risky for a government living on borrowed time amid widespread outrage over its performance in the wake of recent flooding. So the Pakistanis see ending that war (on terms relatively favorable to their Afghan Taliban allies) as a precondition to restoring their stability. But whichever way the relationship between the Afghan war and Pakistan's stability is framed, the effort to prevent another terrorist strike emanating from Pakistani soil — or to retaliate if one occurs — can be expected to add further strain to an already fraught relationship in the weeks ahead.