By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 28, 2007 – Terror remains the No. 1 threat to the United States and its interests, the new U.S. director of national intelligence said in congressional testimony yesterday. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Retired Navy Vice Adm. John M. "Mike" McConnell gave a tour of the world from a threat level.
Al Qaeda remains the terrorist network that poses the greatest threat to the United States, he said. "While many of al Qaeda's senior leadership have been killed or captured, its core elements are resilient," he said. "They continue to plot attacks against the homeland and other targets with the aim of inflicting mass casualties."
Al Qaeda and other terror groups continue to seek chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons or materials, he said. "Al Qaeda also is forging stronger operational connections that radiate outward from their camps in Pakistan to affiliated groups and networks throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe," the admiral said.
Hezbollah, the Shiite organization backed by Iran and Syria, remains a source of serious concern to the United States also, McConnell said. "Last summer, hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah have increased Hezbollah's self-confidence," he said.
Cooperation among nations remains the best defense against these terror organizations, McConnell said. "Our ability to prevent attacks abroad and at home has been aided considerably by cooperation from many foreign governments, among them Iraq, the United Kingdom, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States faces challenges exacerbated by terrorism.
In summarizing a national intelligence estimate on the situation in Iraq, McConnell said the current security and political trends in Iraq "are moving in a negative direction." The Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006 caused sectarian violence that has become self-sustaining. "Unless efforts to reverse these conditions gain real traction during the 12- to 18-month timeframe of this estimate, we assess that the security situation will continue to deteriorate at a rate comparable to the latter half of 2006," he said.
Success by the stronger and more loyal Iraqi security forces supported by the coalition in reducing violence "could give Iraqi political leaders breathing space to pursue political compromise needed for progress and stability," McConnell said.
However, he added, even if violence declines, the current level of sectarian animosity will make political reconciliation difficult over the next 12 to 18 months.
If the coalition withdraws rapidly, intelligence officials foresee a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict, he said. A withdrawal would also intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi government and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation. In addition, al Qaeda almost certainly would use Anbar province to plan for increased attacks.
While outside actors are not likely to be a major driver of either violence or stability, Iranian lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shiite militants clearly intensifies the conflict in Iraq. Syria also continues to provide safe haven for expatriate Iraqi Baathists, McConnell said.
In Afghanistan, 2007 is a pivotal year, the admiral said. "They must build central and provincial government capacity, confront perverse drug cultivation and trafficking, and, with NATO and the United States, arrest the resurgence of the Taliban," he said.
Progress in Afghanistan will not be easy. "There is a chronic shortage of resources and of qualified, motivated government officials," he said. "Once more, although the insurgency probably does not now directly threaten the government, it is deterring economic development and undermining popular support for President (Hamid) Karzai. The drug trade contributes to endemic corruption and undercuts public confidence. In addition, a dangerous nexus exists between drugs, the insurgents, and warlords who derive funds from cultivation and trafficking."
McConnell said that Iran and North Korea are of particular concern to the United States. These regimes have pursued nuclear programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council restrictions. "We assess that Tehran seeks to develop nuclear weapons and has shown greater interest in drawing out the negotiations rather than reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution," he said.
In addition, a nuclear Iran could cause a nuclear arms race in the region, McConnell said. "While our information is incomplete, we estimate Iran could produce a nuclear weapon by early to mid next decade," he said.
With North Korea, six-party talks have produced an agreement intended to lead to a declaration of all North Korean nuclear programs and to the country's disabling all existing nuclear facilities. "The agreement is the initial step in the denuclearization process and will be closely observed as we watch for its implementation," McConnell said.
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