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.

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