The Bush administration recently announced a renewed initiative to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda leaders, which will involve transferring U.S. special forces from Iraq to southwestern Asia. Pakistan is playing a new role in the effort. Its president, Pervez Musharraf, has sent thousands of his country's troops to the Hindu Kush mountain range in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan. He has also allowed U.S. troops to operate in the region, which he had previously refused to do. Why the change and why now?

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency has long supported numerous jihadi groups, using them as "volunteer fighters" against India in Kashmir. The Pakistani government looked the other way, even as the groups began to harbor ambitions that reached beyond their original mission and established close links with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other international jihadi organizations that had emerged from the earlier Afghan war against the Soviets (see "Pakistan's Jihad Culture," Foreign Affairs, December 2000). After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Musharraf officially banned a number of these jihadi groups, renounced the Taliban, and arrested and turned over to the U.S. government hundreds of al Qaeda suspects. At the same time, however, factions within the Pakistani military continued to support these terrorist groups. Pakistani jihadi cells also fought beside al Qaeda and the Taliban against the United States and its allies, and they are leading suspects in a number of terrorist strikes since the September 11 attacks. But they seem to have crossed a line when they attempted to assassinate Musharraf in December 2003.

Last month, Abdul Qadir Khan, the designer of Pakistan's nuclear weapon and a man Musharraf described as his "hero," confessed to an extraordinary crime: selling nuclear technology and expertise to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Khan claimed (not very credibly) that he operated his nuclear-technologies business without the knowledge of his superiors. Perhaps in return for Khan's public confession and the claim that he acted alone, Musharraf quickly pardoned the scientist. More surprisingly, the Bush administration ignored this absolution, even though Khan's nuclear crimes are unprecedented. Why? In a recent article for The New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claims that the move is part of a quid pro quo: Khan was allowed to go free, and in exchange U.S. special forces were granted access to the tribal areas where bin Laden is believed to be operating.

With new intelligence and assistance provided by Musharraf, the return of elite U.S. units to southwestern Asia, and permission for those troops to operate in the Hindu Kush, it is likely that bin Laden will eventually be found. But his capture will not spell the end of al Qaeda and the war on terrorism. As I argued in "The Protean Enemy," al Qaeda is now a movement that inspires a wide variety of jihadi groups, some of which operate entirely on their own. They share al Qaeda's commitment to fighting the West and are capable of carrying out major strikes against it. It is likely that some will want to retaliate. So even if bin Laden is captured or killed, things could get worse before they get better.

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  • Jessica Stern is Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the author of The Ultimate Terrorists and the forthcoming Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill.
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