By: Sultan M Hali
A number of pieces of the puzzle fell into place when the media learnt that the senior military leadership in Afghanistan was propagating that the path to victory in Afghanistan lay through ground attacks in alleged miscreant hideouts in Pakistan. The US media has been continually hinting towards the so called frustrations of the US towards Pakistan, regarding Pakistan’s supposed reluctance to root out militants in its tribal areas. The “New York Times”, which some people consider as the mouthpiece of Capitol Hill discloses a plan to launch attacks in Pakistan’s tribal regions. The daily lets on that the proposed plan has not been approved yet but with the deadline of the commencement of the withdrawal of US forces approaching closer, a sense of urgency is being felt. Gung-ho US analysts are opining that despite the risks involved in military operations inside Pakistan, the use of American Special Operations troops in Pakistan’s tribal regions could bring an intelligence windfall, if militants were captured, brought back across the border into Afghanistan and interrogated. Perhaps these armchair analysts are oblivious of the history of the tribal region. It is fraught with perils for every invader; and history is replete with examples where ambitions of would be conquerors were buried forever in the hostile terrain. It is not that the US troops have not attempted forays across the border into Pakistan. Each has resulted in disaster. The latest on September 30 this year brought such a backlash from Pakistani forces as well as the people that the US had to beat a hasty retreat in any plans to continue with operations ingressing across the Durand Line. The episode infuriated Pakistan’s government, which temporarily shut down American military supply routes into Pakistan. Several fuel trucks sitting at the border were destroyed by insurgents, and American officials publicly apologized. Two years earlier, in September 2008, American commandos carried out a raid in Pakistan’s tribal areas and killed several people suspected of being insurgents. The episode led to outrage among Pakistan’s leaders – and warnings not to try again. It really is not understood how US defence planners have concluded that there is now a shift in policy and Pakistanis would welcome any adventurism in their sovereign territory.
If lessons have not been learnt from the disastrous results of the CIA-operated drone attacks in the region, then the US has only itself to blame. America’s clandestine war in Pakistan has for the most part been carried out by armed drones operated by the C.I.A. Additionally, in recent years; Afghan militias backed by the C.I.A. have carried out a number of secret missions into Pakistan’s tribal areas. These operations in Pakistan by Afghan operatives, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, have been previously reported as solely intelligence-gathering operations. The decision to expand American military activity in Pakistan, which would almost certainly have to be approved by President Obama himself, would amount to the opening of a new front in the war in Afghanistan, which enters its tenth year and has become highly unpopular with US citizens. It would run the risk of angering a Pakistani government that has been an uneasy ally in the war in Afghanistan, particularly if it leads to civilian casualties or highly public confrontations. The drone attacks have caused a different type of backlash, in which a resident of the tribal region, Karim Khan, also a journalist has filed a lawsuit against the CIA and named the head of the intelligence agency in Pakistan, blowing his cover. Resultantly, Jonathan Banks, the CIA operative, who was named in the lawsuit by the plaintiff, had to beat a hasty retreat to safer climes to escape from the wrath of an angered group of survivors of the drone attacks, who are baying for an end to the death from the skies.
It is not that Washington does not have sane elements who will weigh the option of launching forays into Pakistan very carefully. Ground operations in Pakistan remain controversial in Washington, and there may be a debate over the proposal. One senior administration official said he was not in favor of cross-border operations – which he said have been generally “counterproductive” – unless they were directed against top leaders of Al Qaeda. He expressed concern that political fallout in Pakistan could negate any tactical gains. Still, one senior American officer said, “We’ve never been as close as we are now to getting the go-ahead to go across.”
The best bet for the US is to understand the security imperatives for Pakistan, whose ground forces are already outstretched. They have been deployed in Swat and South Waziristan, areas, that have been cleared of miscreants but are fraught with danger until a civilian infrastructure of law and order is in place. Nearly 150,000 Pakistani troops have been deployed in the region. Additionally, the hostile attitude of Pakistan’s eastern neighbour precludes the necessity of placing sufficient troops along the Line of Control in Kashmir to thwart any adventurism by India. The US should contemplate capacity building of Pakistani troops to tackle the miscreants in the area suspected of harbouring miscreants, which would be more productive in the longer run rather than sending US troops. Even before finalizing any plans to increase raids across the border, the Obama administration has already stepped up its air assaults in the tribal areas with an unprecedented number of C.I.A. drone strikes this year. Since September, the spy agency has carried out more than 50 drone attacks in North Waziristan and elsewhere – compared with 60 strikes in the preceding eight months. Instead of challenging Pakistan’s sovereignty, the US is advised to work with its ally Pakistan to eliminate common enemies.