U.S. and Pakistan: Is there method in the madness?

September 10, 2008

File photo of national flagLast week, after U.S. forces were reported to have launched their first ground assault in Pakistan, the website Registan.net asked the obvious question: “Did We Just Invade Pakistan?”  Nearly a week and several missile attacks by U.S. drones later, I am still pondering the same question.

We have just witnessed what may have been the most sustained U.S. military action against targets inside Pakistan, not just since 2001, but since 1947 when the country was founded.  Yet it is not any clearer what is going on.  The Council on Foreign Relations has produced an excellent round-up of media reports on Pakistan, published by the Washington Post. But I’d defy anyone to read through them and come up with a coherent hypothesis that does not immediately run into a contradiction.  Here are some of the ideas being discussed:

File photo of U.S. drone1) Washington has lost patience with Pakistan because it is not doing enough to root out al Qaeda and the Taliban on its border with Afghanistan, and has decided to go it alone (all the more so because the Bush administration would like a foreign policy success before the presidential election). This argument does not quite make sense, since as I noted in my last post, the stepped-up U.S. military operations happened after the Pakistan Army had launched its own offensives in Pakistan’s border areas. Plus, if we were to accept that the United States attacked because the Pakistan Army had failed, why are U.S. forces and drones targeting North and South Waziristan, while the Pakistan military launched its offensives elsewhere, in Bajaur and Swat?

President Asif Ali Zardari2)  The United States is now working, if not in concert, at least not against, the civilian administration in Pakistan, whose new President, Asif Ali Zardari, has called the fight against terrorism a battle for Pakistan’s soul. According to this argument, the Pakistanis were very rattled earlier this year by fears that Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, might fall into Taliban hands. This could have led to the Balkanisation of Pakistan, encouraging other provinces to peel away from Punjab, the country’s traditional heartland. Therefore Pakistan and the United States share a common interest in driving out al Qaeda and the Taliban. According to this argument, there is some method in the madness – although critics mutter about echoes of Vietnam.

3) It is all chaos on the western front. This view holds that nobody has a master plan, there is no coordination and sometimes Pakistan and the United States are working against each other. In this context, the New York Times has a story about how soldiers in Pakistan’s Frontier Corps and U.S. troops ended up, it says, fighting against each other in June.   The argument here is that many in the Pakistan Army, or perhaps more precisely in the Frontier Corps, sympathise with the Taliban and will defend them against a U.S. attack.  The argument against would be, as I noted in an earlier post, that the leaders of the Pakistan Army were aware of this problem and had begun to take action to deal with it so that by now it is less of an issue.

That’s three possible theories, and there are more, in many different permutations.  As I have seen from the comments on previous posts, there are strong views out there on the answers. But maybe it would be a good idea to start with the questions?

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