By CON COUGHLIN
The more evidence that emerges linking Pakistan to the 30-year-old Pakistani-American charged with last weekend's Times Square terror plot, the more reason there is for the Obama Administration to take a long, hard look at that country's status as a vital ally in the war on terror.
While the U.S. investigation into the failed car bombing will go on for months, the facts that have emerged so far are sufficient to indicate that the scheme originated in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, also the base for the majority of the Taliban's terrorist infrastructure.
In a statement issued on an Islamist website, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the plot, saying it was hatched in revenge for the deaths of al Qaeda terrorists Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who were killed by joint U.S.-Iraqi forces last month. Al Qaeda is closely allied with the Pakistani Taliban, which is waging a bitter campaign against the U.S.-backed government of Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari.
Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old prime suspect in New York's failed bombing, also has close ties to the Northwest Frontier. The son of a retired Air Vice Marshal in the Pakistani Air Force, Shahzad has close family ties with Peshawar, the regional capital which is effectively under Taliban control.
American investigators now believe Shahzad visited Peshawar during his recent five-months trip to Pakistan, which ended when he returned to the U.S. in February. He is also understood to have received instruction in bomb-making techniques in Waziristan, another Pakistani province under the Taliban's control. His mobile phone records show he had several conversations with people in Pakistan the day he bought the car used in the failed attack. There are now even suggestions that Shahzad received guidance from the Taliban's main suicide-bomb trainer in Waziristan.
The sheer weight of the evidence has coaxed Pakistani authorities into action, when they arrested two of Shahzad's close associates in Karachi this week. But even so, Pakistani authorities still appear to have some difficulty accepting that the plot originated in Pakistan.
Major General Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, said that the Pakistani Taliban's claims of responsibility for the attack should be "taken with a pinch of salt".
"Anybody can claim anything, but whether the organization has that kind of reach is questionable," he told Pakistani television.
Maj. Gen. Abbas's comments are typical of the denial of Pakistani officials when their country is somehow linked to Islamist terrorism.
Western intelligence officials estimate that at least three-quarters of al Qaeda-related terror plots start in Pakistan, but it is only in the past two years that Islamabad has taken action to curb the activities of their Islamist extremists. That shift came after the leader of the Pakistani Taliban was blamed for the murder of the country's pro-Western prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in 2007, which was then followed by the Taliban's seizure of the Swat valley.
The Pakistani military has certainly proved it can be effective in clearing the Taliban from the territory it has occupied along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, as I discovered during a recent trip to Bajaur, one of seven self-governing tribal agencies. In the area I visited, a known Taliban stronghold where several leading al-Qaeda operatives have reportedly visited, Pakstani officers claim to have killed 2,400 fighters and captured another 700. For their part, the Pakistanis suffered 150 dead and 650 injured.
But while Pakistan's recent military successes have shown just what can be achieved when they put their minds to it, U.S. officials remain frustrated by the Pakistanis' lack of progress in other areas of known Islamist activity, such as Quetta, where the Taliban's leadership is based. As one senior American official based in Islamabad remarked to me, "The Pakistanis are only interested in targeting Islamist terrorists who pose a threat to Pakistan. Those who target the West or NATO forces in Afghanistan are of less interest to them."
The reasons for this reluctance are complex. Many of the terror groups responsible for recent attacks against the West have links to Islamist movements, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, that were created by Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency to fight for Kashmir's independence from India. The ISI also supported the creation of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan as a counter-balance to what Islamabad perceived as India's growing influence in Kabul.
Pakistan's continued preoccupation with India means that even today, the government is prepared to tolerate Islamist extremists on its soil, even if they are plotting against the West.
Pakistani military officials openly make the distinction between what they call the "bad Taliban"—those who challenge the authority of the government in Islamabad—and the "good Taliban," whose efforts are concentrated on attacking NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. The other calculation that is very much at the forefront of Pakistani minds is that, if they are ever too effective in stamping out Islamist militants, the vast sums of aid they receive from the West, currently at $18 billion, might dry up.
But Pakistan's institutional reluctance to act against militant groups who pose such a grave threat to Western security is increasingly untenable. If Pakistan seeks to be a genuine ally of the West in fighting Islamist terrorism, then it needs to take effective action against all the extremists seeking sanctuary within its borders, and not just those who present a challenge to Islamabad's political authority. Otherwise the Obama Administration should give serious consideration as to whether the billions of dollars it gives to Islamabad is money well spent.
Mr. Coughlin is executive foreign editor of London's Daily Telegraph.