Bush’s Pakistan policies: caution or carelessness?

July 1, 2008

1998 file photo of bin Laden in AfghanistanMuch has been made of this week’s New York Times article accusing the Bush administration of allowing al Qaeda to rebuild in Pakistan’s tribal areas after it was chased out of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, not least because the White House took its eye off the ball as it turned its attention to Iraq.

“The United States faces a threat from al Qaeda today that is comparable to what it faced on Sept. 11, 2001,” the newspaper quotes Seth Jones, a Pentagon consultant and a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, as saying. ”The base of operations has moved only a short distance, roughly the difference from New York to Philadelphia.”

Unsurprisingly, the article has been seized upon by the Obama campaign as evidence of the wisdom of the policies of  Senator Barack Obama, who has argued that the real threat to the United States lay in Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than Iraq, and stirred controversy by saying that, “if we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot”.

But what was surprising to me reading the article was how cautious the Bush administration was in its handling of Pakistan, in contrast to its pre-invasion approach to Iraq. The hunt for al Qaeda in Pakistan, the newspaper says, ”was often undermined by bitter disagreements within the Bush administration and within the C.I.A., including about whether American commandos should launch ground raids inside the tribal areas”. Rather than send in ground troops, the Counterterrorist Center at C.I.A. headquarters preferred to carry out raids remotely, usiing missile strikes by Predator drones.

2007 file photo of former Defense Secretary Donald RumsfeldMost surprising, perhaps, was a story of how former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, criticised for his hawkishness on Iraq, refused to authorise a Special Operations mission in 2005 to capture Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy.  Though the plan to send in more than 100 U.S. commandos — what the newspaper says would have been the most aggressive use of American ground troops inside Pakistan — had the support of the C.I.A. director and the Special Operations commander, “the mission was aborted after Mr. Rumsfeld refused to give his approval for it”.

Did it really just come down to incompetence, in-fighting, indecisiveness, the distractions of Iraq and faith in Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf? Or was there a serious understanding in the Bush administration of the risks of sending ground troops into Pakistan, an ally it knew terribly well having worked with it to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan? And if a hawk like Rumsfeld thought it was too risky, where does that leave Obama’s insistence that he is determined to go after al Qaeda in Pakistan?

If Obama were to win the U.S. presidency, he would still have the option of authorising missile strikes by unmanned Predators against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan. These have enraged Pakistanis in the past, because they have missed their targets and killed civilians, and because even an attack by a drone is an invasion of sovereignty.

Tellingly, the New York Times says those in favour of ground operations argue that the only way to catch bin Laden would be to capture some of his senior lieutenants alive. And that cannot be done by a drone.

14 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The only option the United States has to deal with Pakistan is constructive engagement. The US should start respecting the wishes of Pakistani people. Obama has no right to authorize even drone strikes into Pakistan. That is the view of every single Pakistani. Pakistani military services are fully capable of dealing with terrorism. If there is actionable intelligence available, no Pakistani leader(military or civilian) is insane enough to not move against the targets. Having said that, any misadventure will be met by a resolute answer. There should be a comprehensive policy in Washington that would address the relationship with Pakistan in its totality.

Posted by UMPK | Report as abusive

US has got ad-hoc policies vis-a-vis Pakistan.
That is because it appears there is a certain lack of leadership in Pakistan. Pakistan needs a strong leadership that would rally the whole nation and pull everyone together, back up the men and women in Pakistan Armed Forces and stand up to Global challenges. Inculcating a sense of pride in the people and sending a clear signal to the world that this is a Muslim Nuclear weapons state with 163 million people and projecting the true image of the country.
Only then, US would devise a comprehensive long-term Pakistan policy.

Posted by UMPK | Report as abusive

The only solution is a massive Marshall plan for the area–1000 hospitals, 10,000 schools, 500 meidcal helicopters, 5000 mobile clinics, 100 universities, motorways linking all the town, railroads with bullet trains, airports, manufacturing facilites to make “made in china” products–the insurgencies would vanish in a matter of months. Too expensive…a lot chepare than the $1 Tirrlion spent on useless bombings

No drones, no targetted killings, no bombings, and no invasion.

Great last remark UMPK. The sovereignty of Pakistan is crucial to further US and Pakistani relations. It is something that America should respect. However, as you said Pakistan needs a strong leader to act upon verifiable intelligence. At the current status of Pakistan that is not achievable. Even during the anti- Soviet jihad and after Pakistan was not a reliable ally of the US. This is in part because of our lack of constant diplomatic policy with the country and region as a whole. It would be in the US and Pakistan’s best interest if the US were to promote democratic reforms in Pakistan that allow for the free flow of ideas and sovereignty.

Posted by SH | Report as abusive

The pakistani leadership is and was always incapable of dealing with extremists, they have been always doing this to India by sending/allowing terrorists to train in their soil. Even the pakistani military has trained mujahideens, I think UMPK doesn’t remember any of the ground facts happening in pakistan and its tribal areas. I strongly feel now is not the time of words but strict and deadly action to flush all those who had taken up arms.

Posted by FreeVoice | Report as abusive

Pakistan is capable to do anything,Its 7th biggest Nuclear and 9th biggest Army power in the world accordng to 2008 report.Any kind of problem from USA in pakistan is not good for the US longterm peace and sovereignity itself as i think, there should be consensus between both, if (Dull minded) Afghanis want to stop people from tribal area why they dont fence and secure the long border,with pakistan it was a big option from pakistan but fghanis rejected because they themself dont want any peace (these people who are living in tribal areas b/w pakistan (unlawless declared area, free hold)contain afghanis and those who have roots from there basic problem are afganis they want to change attention to (Tribal areas) to protect their bases. I would say Fence the border and see what ahppens if something happens within pakistan due to this area pakistan will vanish all problems but now problem is this that daily people cross border freely what the hell is this Then.Fence it and stop allegations.Karzai has no hold with in his 10km square area and he is leading a democratic country.These uneducated kind of people creates problems b/w big nations, we need peace everywhere why we are extending our war it bad for whole world.

Posted by Samir | Report as abusive

Peace is a two way lane, there has to be a watch between all neighbouring nations, and not have a dual approach towards keeping peace with one country and promoting terrorism at the other side of the boundary.Only then would a marshall plan succeed towards creating better social security in all regions and it would stop all terrorism moving into all parts of the world once for all

Posted by Satish | Report as abusive

Only if some of Bin Laden’s top lieutenants are captured ALIVE… Do I hear the word “torture” again?

Posted by Carlo Cristofori | Report as abusive

FreeVoice
Pakistan is MNNA (major non-Nato Ally) of US, the Pakistani leadership has been decisive against militants, this is evident by the fact that many senior Al-Qaeda operatives were captured in Pakistan by the law enforcement authorities and brought to justice. It is you who live in a world of illusions, myself being inside Pakistan, I have full situational awareness of whats going on around. Whats happening in tribal areas is a very delicate process by Government to balance the tribal sensitivities, flush out the criminal elements and devise development plans to uplift that area from poverty.
The problem with your wishful thinking of swift and massive action in that region is that it will be met with “swift ” and “massive” retaliation by Pakistan. Because Pakistan is a sovereign country and no one is authorized to act against militants operating, except Pakistan Armed Forces.

Posted by UMPK | Report as abusive

If Osama bin Laden is still alive, which is by no means certain, it is of course tempting for the Americans to kill him — although President Bush said on 13 March 2002 that he is “a person who has been marginalised” and that “I truly am not that concerned about him,” which is an intriguing statement coming from a man who six months before declared about bin Laden that “I want justice, and there’s an old poster out West that says, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’.”

Then in June 2004 Mr Bush said that bin Laden was “cornered” and that there was “no hole or cave deep enough to hide from American justice”. Unfortunately, Mr bin Laden (if alive) seems to have found a pretty deep cave, somewhere. Certainly, Saddam Hussain was found in a hole, betrayed by a local Iraqi for a generous payment and settlement in the US ; but it is unlikely that any of the low-level US-recruited Pushtun agents in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, who are being detected and murdered (hideously) in ever-increasing numbers, will be able to finger bin Laden accurately. They haven’t had much success with reporting the whereabouts of other so-called ‘high value targets’. Which brings us to missile attacks.

US missiles fired from drones, as pointed out by Myra MacDonald, are probably the greatest contributor to hatred of America in Pakistan, having killed so many Pakistani civilians. And there can be no confidence that intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts will be accurate enough to justify (if that’s the right word) yet another civilian-killing missile attack by the US within Pakistan.

The most compelling option, or solution, to the US military mind, at least, is to send special forces into Pakistan’s tribal areas with orders to find bin Laden, or as many of the old al Qaeda gang as possible, and follow the ‘justice’ suggestion of Mr Bush about “Dead or Alive.”

This way lies disaster. Anyone who knows the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) realises that the presence of even Pakistani troops excites resentment -– to put it mildly. If a score or so of US Green Berets (or whatever) were heli-landed or parachuted in, there would be tribal reaction of the utmost ferocity. If they tried to walk in from Afghanistan it would be the duty of the Frontier Corps or the Pakistan army to repel them. And US ground forces, these days, are incapable of fighting without massive air support. So if they called in airstrikes within Pakistan the PAF would have no alternative but to support their own kin, and use their American-supplied F-16s to counter violations of Pakistan’s airspace by US aircraft.

There are some clever people sitting in smart offices in Washington and in all the air-conditioned luxurious US headquarters in the Gulf. Let them exercise their cleverness in concert with commonsense.

I recommend reading an article in The Nation (Pakistan) of 2 July. See

http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-n ewspaper-daily-english-online/Opinions/C olumns/02-Jul-2008/Troubles-in-the-front ier

Posted by beecee | Report as abusive

WHAT?!? we screwed up Afghanistan? Bite your tounge sir

Posted by Nick | Report as abusive

The critics of the Bush administration on its handling of Pakistan assume that the US or NATO troops can be more successful than Pakistan Army in tribal areas of Pakistan. I think this is a faulty assumption. The US and NATO have not succeeded in pacifying the situation in Afghanistan in spite of their lengthy presence there. How can they succeed in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas? I believe the only reasonable course is for Pakistan and US to cooperate fully in eliminating the Taleban and Al-Qaeda threat from the region. Pakistanis must be persuaded that it is a battle they must fight against the Taleban for their own survival. Pakistanis need to see this as the biggest existential threat they face, rather than make it look like they are fighting as mercenaries on behalf of the US interests. With the revival of the suicide bombing campaign in Pakistan, I think the realization has begun sink in Pakistan for them to engage in this battle to secure their own country from falling into the hands of the ruthless Taleban and Al-Qaeda who have killed far more Muslims than any one else.

[...] if elected president, would take a harder line on Pakistan than the outgoing Bush administration which stands accused of failing to tackle al Qaeda hideouts there. The row about Pakistan’s nuclear programme can only make the country more vulnerable to [...]

Its too late for “constructive actions” in pakistan. Its better and cheaper to bomb it back to stone age. That’s what President Bush promised to do in 2001 if pakis dont co-operate. Its high time. Pakistan is playing double game with U.S confusing it with its internal politics. Pakis consider Al-qeuda and Taleban as its strategic weapons. They wanted to be the leader of Islamic states and an Islamic Caliphate eventually by gorging up the rest of the infidel world. If the world standby and watch it will be too late. The American reluctance for affirmative action hold eerie similarity to western appeasement of Nazis and Fascists. Now is the time or see history repeats itself. These talks of schools and hospitals are total bollocks!

Posted by Jaydev | Report as abusive

Nothing like having an unrealistic view of the world. While true that a drone bomb can’t distinguish betwen the innocent or the guilty, it is difficult for me to understand how the people of the tribal regions can call all the dead, “civilians.” No one wears a uniform and boys and men carry rifles.

My view: If you are armed, dressed in everyday clothing, and crossing the border area at night, you are fair game.

Posted by Charles Griffin | Report as abusive

[...] the operation could turn into “another Bay or Pigs.” The Bush administration would be criticized for over-caution regarding Pakistan for [...]