Message to Mush: We’re coming.

Since the release of the new intelligence estimate on Al Qaeda Tuesday, the one that concluded the terrorist group has revitalized itself in the lawless hinterlands of Pakistan, intelligence analysts I talk to have been wondering why the administration chose to release the NIE now. Certainly the White House understood that its critics–and some of its supporters–would seize on the NIE’s key judgement that Al Qaeda is stronger today and is poised to attack the United States as a repudiation of the president’s war strategy, namely, that we should fight terrorists in Iraq so they don’t attack us at home.

A nascent and evolving theory is that the administration is signaling now, to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the world, that the United States is more prepared than it has been in years to send American forces into Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas to do what Musharraf either cannot or will not–rout the resurgent Al Qaeda.

Consider some of the key plot points that have led to the current moment in the Pakistan narrative. In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a surprise visit to Pakistan, ostensibly to ease the “war of words” between that country and Afghanistan over what to do with the troubled tribal areas. But Gates was also there to deliver a message to Musharraf–you need to do more to fix this problem.

About two weeks later, Vice President Dick Cheney flew to Islamabad to meet with Musharraf, taking with him the CIA’s deputy director, Stephen Kappes, an seasoned spy and longtime Asia hand who had served in Pakistan. This was not a cordial call. Musharraf’s intelligence services were, and still are, in shambles. Officials don’t know who is loyal to Musharraf and who is loyal to jihadits in Pakistan, and this limits their effectiveness. Musharraf clearly lacks the human intelligence to get close to Al Qaeda without seeing his own troops slaughtered. So, one has to conclude that Kappes was there to provide the Pakistani president with more than moral support. The CIA is giving him intelligence, likely helping him understand who in his own country is trying to kill him, and to help Musharraf deal with the tribal areas. (Apparently this strategy hasn’t been terribly effective, if the intelligence community’s own judgment is that Al Qaeda is strong again.)

At the same time Cheney and Kappes were meeting with Musharraf, senior intelligence officials were briefing reporters on the growing threat of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, telling them that the organization had replenished its middle ranks. Intelligence indicated that the foiled British planes bombing plot the previous year had an operational link to the resurgent group, they said.

Fast forward to this month. The New York Times reported that, in 2005, the Pentagon called off a clandestine U.S. strike in the tribal areas aimed at capturing Al Qaeda officials. Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld worried that the strike–which apparently had ballooned into a full-fledged invasion when military planners demanded security cover–would jeopardize U.S.-Pakistan relations. But in leaking this story two years later, the message to Musharraf from the Pentagon and the intelligence community was clear: We hesitated then, we won’t now.

That brings us to this week’s NIE, which put the official stamp on what we’ve known for months. A few days before its release, the intelligence community’s top analyst publicly briefed members of Congress on the substance of the Pakistan problem.

Taken together, this build-up in U.S. anxiety–first expressed in surprise visits by top officials, now playing out in congressional testimony and public intelligence documents–signals that the Bush administration is dispensing with its light-touch strategy. It was that approach that kept thousands of combat troops from descending into the tribal areas in 2005. This has been replaced by tough public rhetoric and an undercurrent of hostility.

One has to wonder if the administration thinks the time for words has past. Is the United States moving towards its own military solution to Al Qaeda in Pakistan? The administration has stayed off that course for fear it would so badly destabilize Musharraf that he would lose his grip on power, with disastrous consequences for American interests. Well, the country appears to be sliding into instability, so perhaps one objection has gone away. But if Al Qaeda really has re-charged its batteries, and is more capable of striking out from Pakistan today than it has been in years–which is now the official line–then the administration might think it has no choice but to strike, if Musharraf won’t.

It sounds implausible given the administration’s cautious strategy to date. But consider what would happen if an Al Qaeda cell linked to Pakistan mounts a devastating attack in the United States. The United States would respond with full force, a la Afghanistan in 2002. Is the administration prepared to wait for that moment? I think that you can read between lines of the past several months and conclude, “Probably not.”