Yesterday, The New York Times reported on Pakistan’s demand that the United States sharply reduce the number of CIA and Special Forces personnel operating in the country. Many of these personnel have been involved in the United States’ highly successful Predator drone strikes against Islamic militants operating on the Af-Pak border. Removing these personnel will undoubtably be a major blow to American counterterrorism operations in the region. As such, the United States government should use every effort to persuade the Pakistani government to drop the request.
Pakistan’s request is outrageous, especially since the United States has provided over one billion dollars a year in assistance to the Pakistani military. Despite this lavish funding, Pakistan’s efforts to destroy al Qaeda havens in northwest Pakistan have been relatively unsuccessful. For instance, Pakistani units launched Operation Brekhna in January 2011 to clear militants from Mohmand Agency — the third time in two years that the Pakistanis have had to clear the same territory. The fact that the Pakistani military has had to fight for the same ground three times in two years shows the government has been unable to prevent insurgents from returning to cleared areas.
In contrast and by a Pakistani general’s own admission, Predator drone strikes have been extremely effective. According to Major General Mehmood Ghayur, the United States military had carried out about 164 drone strikes from 2007-2011 that killed more than 964 militants, including 171 foreigners of Arab, Uzbek, Tajik, Chechen, Filipino, and Moroccan extraction (It is unclear if these statistics include all American border operations or just those in North Waziristan).
The White House’s recent Afghanistan-Pakistan semi-annual report indicates that Pakistan’s offensive operations against Islamic militants have also been stymied by monsoon flooding that covered one-fifth of Pakistan’s land area from the end of July to the beginning of October. In the interim, militants extended their control to “areas without sufficient Pakistani central government-provided security and governance.”
Furthermore, the Indian threat continues to loom larger in Pakistan’s strategic calculus than radical Islam does. This perception has led Pakistan to maintain a larger ratio of its forces along its eastern border with India and reduces available manpower for Af-Pak border operations.
Despite the sustained deployment of 147,000 troops on or near the Afghan border, 2,575 soldiers killed in action, and over 8,500 wounded since 2001, Pakistan has been unable to defeat its Islamist insurgency. According to The Economist, some 30,000 people have been killed in the past four years in “terrorism, sectarianism, and army attacks on the terrorists.”
To add to the complexity, the report also suggests that the Pakistani government has been unable to achieve a consensus on key issues ranging from governance to judicial issues to the economy. The situation is so fluid that the United States government does not even know who on the Pakistani side will lead talks for the next round of the United States-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue.
Of course, Pakistan also has the typical problems associated with being an Islamic Republic. Public debate over Pakistan’s barbaric blasphemy law has been muted after at least two high-profile assassinations of politicians who have challenged it. The law stipulates that “derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” Nearly 60% of Pakistani believe the United States represents the greatest threat to Pakistan and over 80% of the population is in favor of stoning adulterers.
Complicating Pakistan’s schizophrenic internal political situation is the fact that the country has a small nuclear arsenal.
Taking American Predator drones out of the fight would be equivalent to cutting off the Afghan war effort’s right arm. More critically, it would reduce the Pakistani military’s capacity to fight its own homegrown Islamic insurgency and result in further instability in a nuclear-armed, Muslim country.
If the Obama administration believes diplomacy can end wars, now is its chance to prove it.
This goes back all the way to the Soviet-Afghan war when Pakistan funneled US aid to the most extremist groups, and then backed the Taliban’s rise to power. The more I read on Afghanistan the more I think we need to find a way out — we can’t win without investing a lot more resources, a long term low scale war only helps Islamic extremists maintain a ‘permanent enemy’ and we don’t have the capacity or will to increase the scope of the conflict. People have tried to say Obama’s an extremist, but his MO is one of caution and trying to find compromise positions. That’s how he approached Afghanistan in 2009. I don’t think that will work, and Pakistan knows that the US has little leverage as it is. Diplomacy, or perhaps a major rethinking of strategy over there is necessary.
I was against the Afghan surge for three reasons:
1. It turned a predominantly counterrorism operation into a counterinsurgency operation. Building a democracy does little for us. Killing al Qaeda’s leadership does.
2. The terrain in that region favors the insurgent (It did not in Iraq). There is an interesting study done by an MIT grad student on war and terrain. The findings are fairly obvious. Nations with difficult terrain tend to be more unstable, because they are more difficult to control.
3. I worried that dramatically increasing US forces in the region would push the instability into Pakistan (it has), which has a small nuclear arsenal.
Both Obama and Republicans were wrong on this one (and many Democrats got it right).