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Getting To War With Pakistan By Increments?

Posted by on October 5th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Fred Hiatt and the editors of the Washington Post have a couple of demands for Obama's Af/Pak policy:

Pakistan's punishment of NATO for the border incident is arguably an inevitable response to domestic political opinion. But its resistance to a more muscular U.S. campaign in North Waziristan, where the Haqqani faction is based, is unacceptable…if Pakistan is really unable to tackle the sanctuaries, it cannot be allowed to prevent the United States and its allies from doing so.

…The State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, rightly said last week that "success in Afghanistan is not achievable unless Pakistan is part of the solution." The administration must avoid a rupture in relations; it should make amends for mistakes like the border incident. But it must insist on a robust military campaign in North Waziristan — if not by Pakistani forces, then by the United States.

What Hiatt and his colleagues don't seem to get is that the US will have to pick one - it can have something which comprises enough of a fig-leaf of "success" to justify leaving Afghanistan or it can exert military pressure on those terrorist safe havens in North Waziristan. It cannot have both.

And invading Pakistan (presumably, that's what a "robust military campaign" would entail) because Pakistan sees those safe havens as part burden and part bargaining chip would be the worst of all possible worlds vis-a-vis any kind of "success" in the region. The United States at war with Pakistan, the world's only Moslem nuclear power, would be a disaster given the last decades events – but it's one that we may find ourselves slipping into by increments of stupidity. Lessons from the beginnings of WW1 shouldn't be ignored here.

One of the earliest of those increments of stupidity was Petraeus' decision to green-light cross-border incursions in the first place, following 2008's object lesson in how destabilizing they could be. The effects have been entirely predictable.

The helicopter strike, which Pakistan says killed three of its soldiers, is widely seen here as proof that the U.S. alliance with Pakistan is based solely on self-serving security interests. And it may have put the United States in the position of destabilizing the weak government it wants to fortify.

A second increment of stupidity is Pakistan's apparent decision to send anti-aircraft missiles to the Af/Pak border to prevent more cross-border trespassing.

The strong US ally has installed anti-aircraft missiles in its tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, well-placed sources told Arab News here on Monday.

“Now no helicopter will be able to escape after entering into Pakistani territory,” the official sources said.

A third might be the US military's planned response to Mumbai-style attacks by Pakistan-based militants in Europe.

If Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American citizen, had successfully blown up his SUV in New York's Times Square in May, National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones warned Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the United States "would be forced to do things Pakistan would not like," according to Woodward. Pakistani readers of the book would have been surprised to learn that the U.S. response "could entail a retribution campaign of bombing up to 150 known terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan." Dating from George W. Bush's administration, Woodward writes, the United States already has a "brutal, punishing" plan (of which Obama has been informed): "the U.S. would bomb or attack every known al Qaeda compound or training camp in the U.S. intelligence database."

Neither "brutal" nor "punishing" sounds much like a measured response — but Obama's Wars is clear that there aren't many options for eliminating the terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan.

Of course there are few options – and none of them are good ones. That's been true from word one, back in 2001, but it's only now that the Washington Beltway set are catching on.

The very earliest of those foolish decisions that could oh-so-easily lead to disaster was the Bush administration's ultimatum to Pakistan that it must be an American ally in a war that Bush had decided was going to happen no matter what or be bombed back to the Stone Age. Documents released last month make it clear that if the Bush administration hadn't been so gung-ho to reach for the "big stick", or had realised that the threat posed by India was Pakistan's entire reason for wishing to preserve the Taliban in Afghanistan as a guarantor of Pakistan's "strategic space", and would turn back-flips to ensure the regional staus quo, we might have had Bin Laden and the rest in custody from 2001, without an invasion and without the current sorry state of both the Afghan occupation and the regional catfight re-inflamed by that occupation. They never even gave it a try.

Given that decision, that Pakistan would then try to be both the "indespensible ally" and the Afghan war's "real aggressor - keeping a foot in both camps to defend its own national interests and secuity – was always inevitable. That the US government – over two administrations - would paint itself into a corner by only pushing the first of those was also inevitable, given the domestic political dynamics. 

Instead of admitting the reality of a Pakistan that had a foot in both camps due to its own interests, Beltway pundits followed suit for a whole decade and now also find themselves hung by their own previous rhetoric. They've placed themselves in an entirely unrealistic position where "either/or" needs to beat out "both/also" and so must now call for escalation. That's yet another foolish incremental mistake, increasing the media drumbeat to "do something to win" in a situation where winning has long ago become the least likely of all possible worlds. If Obama or Petraeus has to admit that the ISI is waging proxy war against American troops in Afghanistan and that the US policy is to basically allow this while talking sternly, calls for withdrawal will go up, not down. As Josh Mull writes, the options will be "Either admit straight out we are in a war against AQ inside Pakistan or withdraw. No bait and switch."

The worry there is that instead of admitting that the US has no military options left, it will reach for one anyway – egged on by people like Fred Hiatt would would rather see another, incredibly damaging, war than admit they were wrong all along.

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to “Getting To War With Pakistan By Increments?”

  1. Finally, there is Pakistan itself, a country that truly is on the edge of civil war. They are well armed and among the most fierce and xenophobic people in the world. It is not beyond their military capabilities to cross the Indus and take Islamabad.

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