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Al Qaeda without illusions

'AL QAEDA Better Positioned to Strike the West." That is the title of a new threat assessment from the National Counterterrorism Center discussed Thursday at the White House. The message should be sobering. It confirms the Bush administration's failure to diminish, much less destroy, the operational capabilities of the Islamist gang led by Osama bin Laden. Such is the disillusioning state of a war on terror that has been going on for nearly six years.

If there is a bright spot, it is that intelligence analysts are not sugar-coating. On the contrary, this latest threat evaluation would seem to belie President Bush's past bravado about hunting down bin Laden -- and his claim that Americans are fighting in Iraq so that they don't have to fight terrorists here.

Al Qaeda is said to be using its sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal area to conduct more robust training than at any time since 2001. It has more money, better communications, and a greater ability to plan attacks in the West.

The enhancing of Al Qaeda's capabilities accelerated after Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf struck a deal last year with tribal elders in the Northwest Frontier Province. Pakistani troops were withdrawn from the area; in exchange, the elders pledged to clamp down on Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters crossing into Afghanistan and to prevent the extremists from spreading their influence into the rest of Pakistan.

The failure of that deal was particularly evident when the government felt compelled to conduct a bloody raid this week on Islamist fanatics in the Red Mosque in Islamabad. The violence there is likely to foreshadow an all-out Islamist conflict with the government.

Together, the new threat assessment and Musharraf's belated retaliation against Al Qaeda's Pakistani allies raise a stark question: How much longer can Al Qaeda be allowed to operate from its safe haven in Waziristan?

The answer lies in understanding what Al Qaeda is and whom it threatens most. Bin Laden's network is a vanguard of a movement to replace secular governments in the Muslim world with Taliban-style regimes and their severe version of Islamic law. America becomes a target because it is believed to prop up many of those governments.

Were US troops to pursue bin Laden inside Pakistan, they could set off a chain of events that transforms Pakistan -- a nuclear power -- into an Al Qaeda state. Islamist extremism is primarily a challenge to the moderate mainstream of the Muslim world. America must protect itself against Islamist terrorism, but it should avoid falling into the traps that bin Laden and his gang set for it in Muslim countries. Musharraf has a potent army and a highly developed instinct for self-preservation. The United States should not be making it harder than it already is for him to cope with Pakistan's terrorist threat.

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