Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
America takes the war deeper into Pakistan
One of the most interesting things in Bob Woodward’s re-telling of the Afghan war strategy in his book “Obama’s Wars” is the approach toward Pakistan. It seems the Obama administration figured out pretty early on in its review that Pakistan was going to be the central batttleground, for this is where the main threat to America came from.
Indeed, the mission in Afghanistan was doomed so long as al Qaeda and the Taliban were sheltered in the mountains of northwest Pakistan straddling the Afghan border. The question was how do you deal with Pakistan?
Like much else, the administration debated long and hard just how far to push Pakistan to cracking down on the militants, some of whom it had spawned as assets in Aghanistan and as a front against its much bigger traditional enemy, India. One of those arguing for a tougher posture inside the administration was Dennis Blair, then the director of National Intelligence who thought there were just too many carrots being handed out and not enough sticks. He suggested the United States bomb targets inside Pakistan without seeking Islamabad’s approval. “I think Pakistan would be completely, completely pissed off and they would probably take actions against us … but they would probably adjust,” he once told Obama.
Josh Rogin, recounting the debate from a piece in Foreign Policy, said that Obama chose a less confrontational path toward Pakistan. A year later, patience is running out. Last week’s repeated incursions by NATO helicopters from Afghanistan into Pakistan while pursuing militants seemed to signal a new, muscular strategy of the type Blair advocated.
Three Pakistani soldiers were killed in an attack by a NATO helicopter, triggering outrage and prompting authorities to close down a supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan. Trucks carrying fuel for the foreign troops were set on fire in southern Pakistan in apparent retaliation for the soldiers’ deaths, and on Monday, three guards were killed in an attack on tankers bound for Afghanistan in the nation’s capital.
By choking off NATO supplies, even temporarily, the Pakistanis are saying they have had enough, says Robert Haddick, editor of The Small Wars Journal. While NATO said the helicopter strikes were carried out in self-defense after cross-border firing and in line with the rules of engagement, Pakistan saw it as a flagrant violation of its sovereignty, which is already under sustained pressure from the United States.
For Pakistani officials, it became one slice of the salami too much. These officials have accustomed themselves to the CIA’s drone campaign inside Pakistan, a campaign that accelerated sharply in September. If U.S. policymakers thought they could get Pakistani officials to get accustomed to ever more aggressive air raids into the sanctuaries, Pakistan’s closure of the border is designed to bring those thoughts to an end.
Where do the two nations go from here? As Haddick noted, the drone campaign has already turned intense, with over 20 strikes in September, almost double the previous highest in January when the CIA vowed revenge for the attack on a post in Khost in eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan seems to have resigned itself to thes attacks by unmanned U.S. planes; there was hardly a protest at the sustained bombardment last month which was quite a contrast from the time when people took to the streets each time a Hellfire missile was fired.
The worry, then, in Pakistan must be the more frequent these incursions become, the weaker the resistance over time. It’s a slippery slope. First the unmanned drones became part of the Pakistani landscape, hovering over its skies for hours and raining missiles. Then, manned incursions by helicopters, some of them as deep as 5 km inside Pakistani territory according to reports in the local newspapers. Tomorrow it could be small bands of troops or special forces crossing the border in “hot pursuit,” something no self-respecting army, least of all Pakistan’s professional army can accept.
For, all this may eventually also play into what happens on Pakistan’s eastern flank where it confronts India’s huge military. If the U.S. and NATO can cross the border in hot pursuit and in line with the rules of engagement, what stops India from doing it next time there is a militant attack on its soil. Isn’t it going to be harder to hold them back if they want to go across the ceasefire line in Kashmir?