Shahzad: A Pretext, Not a Man

Shortly after the failed Times Square attack, Gen. David Petreaus characterized the lone suspect, Faisal Shahzad, as a “lone wolf.” A day later, U.S. attorney general Eric Holder offered a sharply divergent view, describing the suspect as “intimately involved” with the Pakistani Taliban.

The competing assertions about Shahzad’s links relationship with Pakistani Taliban reflects a broader debate both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and Pakistan over how to handle Taliban elements in Waziristan province.

The Pakistanis, who have been rounding up militants and conducting their own interrogations, fumed at Holder’s assessment. They questioned the only real lead thus far, a friend of Shahzad and quasi-active member of the banned Islamist group Jaish-e-Mohammad named Muhammad Rehan, and concluded that Rehan did not introduce Shahzad to the Pakistani Taliban.

“There are no roots to this case, so how can we trace something back?” an anonymous Pakistani security official said.

FBI agents also questioned those detained by Pakistani authorities; they have not produced any evidence or made any statements that contradict Pakistani findings—at least not publicly.

Pakistani officials believe the U.S. is trying to use the Shahzad case to pressure the country to launch a ground offensive against the militant hornets’ nest in Waziristan province.

“There is a disconnect between the Pentagon and the [Obama] administration,” a senior Pakistani government official said of the wide gap between Petreaus’ and Holder’s assessments. “The Pentagon gets it that more open pressure on Pakistan is not helpful.”

It may not be helpful, but is it true? On Tuesday, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kit Bond, cast doubt on the Holder version of events.

“I am not convinced by the information that I’ve seen so far that there was adequate, confirmable intelligence to corroborate the statements that were made on Sunday television shows,” Bond said a classified briefing.

Another possible reason for the administration’s eagerness to push a Shahzad-Taliban connection is that it would vindicate Obama’s drone-heavy strategy.

“[B]ecause of our success in degrading the capabilities of these terrorist groups overseas…they now are relegated to trying to do these unsophisticated attacks, showing that they have inept capabilities in training,” said John Brennan, a White House counter-terrorism official.

Can anyone else hear in that rationale the faint echoes of a certain conservative? It seems to me that the expanding reach of terrorist violence is proof of the drone program’s success in the same way that the growing violence of the Iraqi insurgency was proof that it was in its “last throes.”

And the crux of Brennan’s theory—that drone strikes have so harried the world’s experts in blowing people up that they can no longer properly train people in explosives—strikes me as wishful thinking.

His view is certainly a more reassuring one for the administration than the alternative, which is that the drone attacks’ collateral damage actually inspired the radicalism of Shahzad, a seemingly integrated American citizen.

The truth may be a combination of both, or something else altogether. It’ll be hard to know until—if—the fog of competing political agendas lifts.