During Friday’s presidential debate, Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, repeated an argument about the war on terror that he’s made for more than a year. “If the United States has Al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights,” said Obama, “and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out.”
When Obama first raised the prospect of unilateral military action, under certain conditions, against the Al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan during a Democratic primary debate last August, both his rivals and the press criticized him — not necessarily for being wrong, but for making the argument in public. “You shouldn’t always say everything you think when you’re running for president,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) responded, “because it could have consequences across the world.”
Reflecting on the controversy several months later, Ben Rhodes, a member of Obama’s foreign-policy inner circle, called it a “seminal moment.” “No one [of Obama's critics] had thought through the policy because that was the quote-unquote naïve… position, so they said it was a bad position to take,” Rhodes remembered. Obama, by contrast, “himself said, ‘No, I’m right about this!’”
Not surprisingly then, Obama stuck to his guns on Friday, calling conditionalized strikes “the right strategy.”
Foreign-policy experts, however, aren’t so sure. They point to the risk of destabilizing Pakistan — even as they note that the new military, civilian and intelligence leadership in Islamabad expresses little appetite for going after Al Qaeda and Taliban elements in the autonomous tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants are believed to be.
“This is really a damned if you do, damned if you don’t for us,” said one retired government official with extensive experience in South Asia, who declined to be named.
Different experts have different degrees of comfort with the prospect of increased U.S. military activity in the Pakistani tribal areas. “My personal opinion is that ground incursions of American forces in the tribal areas would have a massively counterproductive effect, undercutting any positive effect,” said one retired Army officer with experience in Afghanistan. “The qualifier is that all Americans would accept and support [such action] to get bin Laden and Zawahiri. That level, along with the Taliban — Mullah Omar — would be the exception.”
That is what Obama’s heavily conditionalized proposal has envisioned from the start. “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” he said on Aug. 1, 2007.
The Democratic presidential nominee has raised the prospect of U.S. military activity in Pakistan under three basic criteria: first, Washington possesses credible intelligence about the location of such targets; second, the targets are, as Obama said Friday “top-level lieutenants” to bin Laden or bin Laden himself; and third, the Pakistani government will not or cannot act itself.
“The only thing he’s saying is that, as president, it’s his obligation to defend American lives,” said Wendy Chamberlin, the president of the Middle East Institute who served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2002. Chamberlin is a peripheral adviser to the Obama campaign on South Asia issues, but said she was speaking in her personal capacity. “These are the guys who attacked us in Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania,” she said. “If that’s the target he’s going after, it’s his obligation. Nothing Obama has ever said indicates he’d be doing it without the Pakistanis knowing.”
Obama’s position illustrates perhaps the most vexing problem in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Last August, a National Intelligence Estimate — an assessment of a situation from the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies — found that Al Qaeda had reestablished ” a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA),” meaning that it possessed freedom of action to regenerate “operational lieutenants, and its top leadership.”
As a result, “the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability,” the estimate concluded. Last month, Ted Gistaro, the senior U.S. intelligence analyst for transnational threats, testified that “Al Qaeda has strengthened its safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) by deepening its alliances with Pakistani militants and pushing many elements of Pakistani government authority from the area.”
Yet Pakistani military activity against Al Qaeda on its soil has been paltry. In 2006, the government and Army, formerly run by Pervez Musharraf, signed a ceasefire with militants in a portion of the tribal areas — a ceasefire that unravelled 10 months later when the militants returned to violence.
Since then, Musharraf lost both his posts, replaced as Army chief of staff by Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, a former head of the powerful Inter Services Intelligence, the state espionage agency. Wednesday, Kayani placed a key ally, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, at the helm of the ISI. Washington’s U.S. relationship with Kayani has been publicly rosy and privately stormy.
Earlier this month, U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan led a raid into Pakistan, infuriating Kayani and the new civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari. That raid capped a year of increased U.S. activity — usually air attacks and missile strikes — in the tribal areas, a development first noticed by Eli Lake of the New York Sun.
The New York Times reported that, in June, President George W. Bush secretly issued an order allowing Special Forces to hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives. Kayani responded on Sept. 11 by calling any such operation an attack on Pakistani sovereignty. Since then, Pakistani forces have, for the first time in the war on terrorism, opened fire on U.S. troops — who, on paper at least, are their allies.
U.S. activity in Pakistan is extremely unpopular there. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country with a history of instability. Some former diplomats, Army officers and other government officials fear destabilization occuring if unilateral U.S. military activities escalate.
“Each attack blamed on us makes us more unpopular,” said Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. Yet, Neumann added, “If you had a clear high-value target or no collateral damage, what would be the difference in the order Obama proposes to give than what [Bush is] doing now? I don’t see it.”
The retired ambassador suggested that a likely scenario would have Obama reaching an “understanding” with the Zardari and Kayani that would never be put on paper. “Something really has to be worked out over time with the Pakistanis,” Neumann said. “It’s not something one can structure, purely theoretically, in Washington. There will probably be pushing back and forth both ways.”
In other words, it would be unlikely that a U.S. president would take military action in Pakistan without the Pakistani government knowing about it, and probably issuing, at least, tacit approval.
Air and missile strikes, or increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator — equipped with a Hellfire missile — might pose an alternative to ground forces.
“That’s something appropriate,” the retired Army officer said. “The Pakistanis tacitly recognize that’s something we can do. We can do it without the destruction, violent response, pushback [that U.S. ground troops would provoke]. That pattern has been established. And the Pakistani government, to some extent, tolerates that.”
Yet the prospect of destabilization remains — particularly if Obama’s proposal suffers from mission creep; or if the strikes hit the wrong people, which in war is virtually inevitable.
“It’s so unpopular domestically that it puts at risk, from the military’s perspective, the legitimacy of their enterprise,” said the former government official. “Very rarely is something so unpopular and unifying of Pakistanis against something as U.S. military action is. We have successfully unified an otherwise very divergent Pakistani public opinion against a), any military actions in the FATA at all; and b) U.S. unilateral actions in the FATA.”
Then there’s the question of the U.S. intelligence network in the tribal areas. Not many believe that Washington has a particularly robust network of human intelligence in the area where bin Laden and his top aides are suspected of operating.
“The only way to get good targeting is to find disloyal people in the networks,” said Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. “It’s the only way we were able to get Zarqawi,” referring to the former chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq, killed by the U.S. military in 2006.
The former government official added, “The target is a fast-moving target with a lot of protection around it. When you have a population not sympathetic to the U.S., people, who might have been neutral, become mildly protective of the people they should be against.”
In other words, the available intelligence might not rise to the level required by one of Obama’s criteria for action.
For his part, it is not clear what Sen. John McCain’s position is on attacking Al Qaeda in Pakistan. In the debate, he attacked Obama not on the merits of the argument, but for “say[ing] that out loud,” an echo of Clinton’s argument.
In his most substantive comment, McCain said “If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government.”
But when his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told a Pennsylvania voter “if that’s what we have to do stop the terrorists from coming any further in [to Afghanistan], absolutely, we should,” McCain effectively overruled her, saying it would be “gotcha journalism” to conclude anything other than that “Gov. Palin and I agree that you don’t announce that you’re going to attack another country.”
However, McCain has joked about bombing Iran, and within months of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, told troops aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, “Next stop, Baghdad.”
But the former government official warned, “The challenge of Pakistan is an independent challenge, one independent of Afghanistan. If we subordinate it to Al Qaeda, we are risking falling into a hole. The alienation or loss of Pakistan [would be] a blow to regional stability for years to come.”
All experts interviewed for this piece agreed on two points: first, the preference by far would be to induce the Pakistanis to take action against Al Qaeda themselves; second, U.S. incursions into Pakistan need to remain limited.
“In terms of making this normal or routine, or requiring a fairly low threshold [for action], that’s a mistake,” said the retired Army officer. “Reserve this for the most critical [Al Qaeda] leadership targets. … Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri are of such significance to the U.S. that my sense is that any president would reserve the right to make that decision.”