Facing up to “the war in Pakistan”

September 14, 2008

Masked pro-Taliban Pakistani militantsThere has been much hesitation in the world’s media about how to label U.S. military action inside Pakistan’s borders, including a reported ground raid and a series of missile strikes. Do you call it an “invasion”? Or use the more innocuous-sounding “intervention”? In an editorial, the Washington Post gives it a name which is rather striking in its directness. It calls it quite simply, The War in Pakistan.

President George W. Bush’s reported decision in July to step up attacks by U.S. forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the newspaper says, was both necessary and long overdue. It acknowledges there is a risk the strikes might prompt a breach between the U.S. and Pakistani armies, or destabilize the new civilian government in Pakistan. But, it says, ”no risk to Pakistan’s political system or its U.S. relations is greater than that of a second 9/11 staged from the tribal territories. U.S. missile and commando attacks must be backed by the best intelligence and must minimize civilian casualties. But they must continue.”

Others are lining up to condemn the new U.S. strategy in Pakistan.

Protesting against U.S. strikes“The Americans are probably right in claiming that Al-Qaeda and the Taleban have regrouped and using bases in Pakistan to launch cross-border raids into Afghanistan,” says Saudi-based Arab News. “They are certainly right in thinking that there will be no peace in Afghanistan while that remains the case. But they have to let the Pakistanis deal with this. If they continue the raids, they risk not merely losing what dwindling support they have in Pakistan but, far worse, alienating the country so thoroughly than no government even vaguely sympathetic to the US and the West can survive there.”

Pakistan’s Daily Times takes this argument further by suggesting that if public opinion turns even more against the United States, “the country will become more vulnerable to Al Qaeda and we will face unpredictable odds. According to nuclear theory, Pakistan is a nuclear power and cannot be attacked. If the US attacks Pakistani territory, battles with the Pakistan army, stops military assistance to Pakistan, and thus ends up making Al Qaeda supreme in Pakistan, the nuclear theory might then apply to Al Qaeda.”

In the Huffington Post, Shuja Nawaz writes that “the next time the US physically invades Pakistani territory to take out suspected militants, it may meet the Pakistan army head on. Or it may face a complete cut-off of war supplies and fuel in Afghanistan via Pakistan. With only two weeks supply of fuel available to its forces inside Afghanistan and no alternative route currently available, the war in Afghanistan may come to a screeching halt.”

Nawaz adds that both Pakistan and the United States need to rethink their actions. ”Otherwise, the US will not only lose an ally in Pakistan but ignite a conflagration inside that huge and nuclear-armed country that will make the war in Afghanistan seem like a Sunday hike in the Hindu Kush.”

Scary stuff then, with lots of massive risks being talked about on both sides of the argument, from another 9/11 to al Qaeda taking charge of Pakistan.

So here is a completely different view from Juan Cole in Informed Comment. “The original al Qaeda is defeated,” he says.  Do read his post before leaping to judgment on this assertion, as he makes some interesting points, including arguing that the Taliban are driven more by Pashtun nationalism than by a desire to spread terrorism around the world.

“Although the US is worried about the Arab volunteers who take refuge among the resurgent Taliban, they are a tiny element and cannot easily launch international terrorist operations from FATA (Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas),” he writes. Based on an analysis of al Qaeda’s capabilities around the world, including in Iraq, he concludes; “For now, our war is over. Time to come home, and train and fund locals to do the clean-up work.”

Just suppose for a minute that his argument were to turn out to be correct. Then is the United States opening up a third front after Iraq and Afghanistan, but this time on the territory of a nuclear-armed country, for the wrong reasons?


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