Does that U.S. “retribution plan” for Pakistan still stand?

September 27, 2010

flagburningOne of the more interesting details in the advance reports of Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” is that Washington had prepared a “retribution plan” in the event of a major attack on the United States which is traced back to Pakistan.

“While no contingency plans exist for dealing militarily with a collapse of nuclear-armed Pakistan, there is ‘a retribution plan’ in place, developed by the Bush administration, if the United States suffers another 9/11-style terrorist attack,” according to the Los Angeles Times. ”That would involve bombing and missile strikes to obliterate the more than 150 al Qaeda training and staging camps known to exist, most of them in Pakistan, which presumably would suffer extensive civilian casualties.”

“Some locations might be outdated, but there would be no concern, under the plan, for who might be living there now. The retribution plan called for a brutal punishing attack on at least 150 or more associated camps,” the Times of India quoted Woodward as saying.
 
The idea that the Americans would take drastic punitive action if a major attack were traced back to Pakistan has been around for a while, and is one that worries many Pakistanis. But I’ve not seen it spelled out quite so clearly before in black-and-white.
 
Some important questions then.
 
1) Does that plan still stand?
 
2) Does it apply only to al Qaeda, or has it been updated to take account of threats from other Pakistan-based groups? 
 
Take, for example, the failed car-bombing of New York’s Times Square in May by Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad, who said he was working with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban.  While mainly based in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban also have a strong presence in the city of Karachi, so if you want to take punitive action against them, where do you draw the line?
 
What also of other militant groups such as the al Qaeda-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed , based in Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province and with alleged connections to the 2006 “liquid bombing” plot to bring down multiple airliners over the Atlantic? Or of the Punjab-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which in the 2008 attack on Mumbai for which it was blamed, showed it had organisational skills comparable to al Qaeda to mount a spectacular assault, and which has also been linked to overseas plots?
 
The idea that al Qaeda was somehow a unitary organisation representing a unique threat to the United States has come to look very dated since 9/11.  Does that mean the “retribution plan” has also been overtaken by events?
 
3) To what extent can Pakistan prevent Pakistan-based militants from plotting attacks on the United States, when it can’t even prevent bombings of its own cities? Does the  “retribution plan” attribute responsibility to Pakistani authorities for failing – according to the United States – to “do more” to tackle militants?
 
4) How far could Pakistan withstand U.S. punitive action even if this were limited to its tribal areas? The country is already looking pretty shaky after devastating floods and the economy is in a shambles. A shift to civilian democracy that was supposed to bring stability has been sorely undermined by weak governance, which has seen the balance of power shifting increasingly back towards the Pakistan Army. Taliban militants have been trying to exploit political instability by stoking sectarian tensions, bombing Shi’ite rallies in the cities of Lahore and Quetta this month.  And anti-Americanism is already running  high, exacerbated by public hostility to U.S. drone bombings in the tribal areas.  The risk would be that intensified U.S. bombings could increase instability in Pakistan to such an extent that Washington would end up with an even bigger security threat – a nuclear-armed country slipping out of control.
 
Of course everyone remembers former president Pervez Musharraf’s comment that Washington had threatened to bomb Pakistan back into the stone age if he did not cooperate after 9/11. But I’ve never been entirely clear what that meant.  Bombing a nuclear-armed country into a state of chaos, or indeed attempting to invade it, are unlikely policy options for Washington as it tries to extract itself from two unpopular wars while also fretting about neighbouring Iran’s own nuclear ambitions.  Yet bombing suspected al Qaeda camps in the tribal areas could simply increase instability without eradicating militancy.
 
So where does that leave the United States and its “retribution plan”? Where are the red lines that would demand an immediate and powerful U.S. reaction? Would it depend on the size of the attack, the intensity of public reaction, or electoral imperatives at the time?  Does anyone know? Does Pakistan?
 
In strategic thinking about the relationship between India and Pakistan, one of the biggest worries has always been that both countries do not know where the other’s red lines lie when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons.  Even more worrying, they think they do. That thinking probably applies too to the United States and Pakistan - that they don’t know where each other’s red lines lie – either in terms of Washington’s ability to absorb another attack, or in Pakistan’s ability to withstand the U.S. reaction.  You would have to hope that they know they don’t know, and that the “retribution plan”, if it still exists, never has to be put into practice.
(Reuters photo: Protesters burn U.S. flag in Peshawar) 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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