Bill Roggio was the first to report some rather significant--and possibly, troubling--developments from Pakistan's tribal region, where Al Qaida (and its Taliban allies) have established a new safe haven over the past year. On Saturday, Mr. Roggio noted an article by Asia Times writer Syed Saleem Shahzad, claiming that Al Qaida and Taliban camps have "emptied out" over the past month, ahead of anticipated strikes by the Pakistani military, and possibly, by U.S. special operations forces.
The implications of that move are obvious. Not only will scores of terrorists live to fight another day, but it also raises renewed questions about security and loyalty within the Pakistani military. According to Mr. Shahzad, the U.S. had developed extensive intelligence on 29 suspected camps in the Waziristan and passed the information to Islamabad, in preparation for an expected offensive. The quick exodus of insurgents from that camp suggests (once again) that the Taliban has a number of "friends" in the upper echelons of Pakistan's military (particularly within the intelligence service or ISI), who provide tipoffs and warning to the terrorists.
Shahzad's sources also claim that "all but one of the 29 camps" have been dismantled, although U.S. officials (questioned by Bill Roggio) deny that report. Clearly, there's a critical difference between an abandoned camp (or one where no activity is observed), and a facility that is being disassembled. Empty camps would suggest that Al Qaida and Taliban elements have temporarily relocated, moving into defensive positions against expected Pakistani attacks, with plans to return once the government's offensive ends.
Another--albeit less likely--explanation is that the Taliban and Al Qaida have become increasingly aware of U.S. satellites (and other surveillance platforms), scheduling training and other "outside" activity to coincide with known "breaks" in coverage. Information on various spy satellites and their coverage windows in readily available on the internet, and years of aircraft and UAV flights along the Afghan border have provided insight into their operational patterns as well.
While terrorists could use that data to developed their own "activity scheduling" program to inhibit our surveillance efforts, they would face the challenge of disseminating that information to widely-scattered camps in a timely manner. Beyond that, the "absence" of activity is likely based on all-source intelligence reporting, which indicates that the camps are empty, at least for now. In other words, not only are the imagery platforms showing an absence of activity, it's being confirmed by SIGINT and other measures.
But would Al Qaida and the Taliban be willing to permanently surrender their Waziristan bases? That's the $64,000 question, and for now, it defies a clear answer. Most of the analysts we spoke with believe that the terrorists would give up their safe havens only if (a) their training and logistical goals had been met; (b) they were anticipating a permanent Pakistani military presence in the region, (c) they anticipate access to better locations/facilities in the near future, or (d) they plan to return to the camps in the months ahead.
While the Waziristan camps have been a boon for Al Qaida and their Taliban allies, they have not achieved mid or long-term training and logistics goals in the past year. Like any other military organization (or more, correctly, quasi-military organization), the terrorists face the challenge of recruiting, training and equipping enough fighters for a multi-front war. A permanent shut-down of the 29 camps--without dedicated replacements--would put Al Qaida and the Taliban in the same fix they faced before the Waziristan Accords: a need to prepare more terrorists for jihad, without the large-scale training facilities that operated openly in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
We also concur with Bill Roggio's assessment that the "threat" of a Pakistani military presence did not force the evacuation. As he notes, limited Pakistani forays into Waziristan have come at a high price, and despite hints from Islamabad, there are no signs of a pending government offensive into the tribal lands. Attacks by the Pakistani military may be limited to air and artillery strikes against "known" targets (i.e., the camps), so a temporary evacuation would allow terrorists to minimize their losses, and return after the offensive ends.
In terms of accessing "new" locations, the terrorists may have that opportunity in the coming weeks. Mr. Shahzad's article identified two "war corridors" that represent key axis of communications in potential battles with Pakistani forces. Success in those clashes would allow Al Qaida and Taliban operatives to extend their reach, and move closer to areas now under government control. Relocating the camps to those areas would make them more accessible, but also more vulnerable to future Pakistani attacks. Barring a major change in the balance of power, such a relocation seems unlikely.
Available information suggests that the fourth option--a return to the Waziristan camps--appears most likely. With winter looming on the horizon, the terrorists know that any Pakistani offensive (or U.S. SOF raids) will be of limited duration, allowing them to reoccupy their safe havens in a matter of weeks. That suggests that the current "evacuation" serves two operational goals: minimizing losses from potential strikes against the camps, while putting more fighters in the field to deal with potential ground incursions by Pakistani forces. Once the "immediate" threat eases, the terrorists will likely return to their camps, which are still being maintain by skeleton staffs.
ADDENDUM: There has been considerable speculation about the camps' sudden evacuation, and possible attacks by Al Qaida inside the CONUS. As one intelligence official told Bill Roggio, there were a number of experienced terrorists in those camps, operatives who are quite capable of conducting operations overseas. While we concur that assessment, it is worth remembering that those terrorists were a minority within the "local" Al Qaida population. Most of the fighters who recently dispersed were likely trained for operations within the region--Afghanistan or Pakistan.