The George W. Bush administration’s decision to launch commando raids and step up missiles strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda figures in the tribal areas of Pakistan followed what appears to have been the most contentious policy process over the use of force in Bush’s eight-year presidency.
That decision has stirred such strong opposition from the Pakistani military and government that it is now being revisited. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Pakistan Tuesday for the second time in three weeks, and US officials and sources just told Reuters that any future raids would be approved on a mission-by-mission basis by a top US administration official.
The policy was the result of strong pressure from the US command in Afghanistan and lobbying by the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the CIA’s operations directorate (DO), both of which had direct institutional interests in operations that coincided with their mandate.
State Department and some Pentagon officials had managed to delay the proposed military escalation in Pakistan for a year by arguing that it would be based on nearly nonexistent intelligence and would only increase support for the Islamic extremists in that country.
But officials of SOCOM and the CIA prevailed in the end, apparently because Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney believed they could not afford to be seen as doing nothing about bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the administration’s final months.
SOCOM had a strong institutional interest in a major new operation in Pakistan.
The Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEALS had been allowed by the Pakistani military to accompany its forces on raids in the tribal area in 2002 and 2003 but not to operate on their own. And even that extremely limited role was ended by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2003, which frustrated SOCOM officials.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose antagonism toward the CIA was legendary, had wanted SOCOM to take over the hunt for bin Laden. And in 2006, SOCOM’s Joint Special Operations Command branch in Afghanistan pressed Rumsfeld to approve a commando operation in Pakistan aimed at capturing a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative.
SOCOM had the support of the US command in Afghanistan, which was arguing that the war in Afghanistan could not be won as long as the Taliban had a safe haven in Pakistan from which to launch attacks. The top US commander, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, worked with SOCOM and DO officers in Afghanistan to assemble the evidence of Pakistan’s cooperation with the Taliban. .
Despite concerns that such an operation could cause a massive reaction in Pakistan against the US war on al-Qaeda, Rumsfeld gave in to the pressure in early November 2006 and approved the operation, according to an account in the New York Times Jun. 30. But within days, Rumsfeld was out as defense secretary, and the operation was put on hold.
Nevertheless Bush and Cheney, who had been repeating that Musharraf had things under control in the frontier area, soon realized that they would be politically vulnerable to charges that they weren’t doing anything about bin Laden.
The July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was the signal for the CIA’s DO to step up its own lobbying for control over a Pakistan operation, based on the Afghan model CIA officers training and arming a local militia while identifying targets for strikes from the air.
In a Washington Post column only two weeks after the NIE’s conclusions were made public, David Ignatius quoted former CIA official Hank Crumpton, who had run the CIA operation in Afghanistan after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, on the proposed DO operation: "We either do it now, or we do it after the next attack."
That either-or logic and the sense of political vulnerability in the White House was the key advantage of the advocates of a new war in Pakistan. Last November, the New York Times reported that the Defense Department had drafted an order based on the SOCOM proposal for training of local tribal forces and for new authority for "covert" commando operations in Pakistan’s frontier provinces.
But the previous experience with missile strikes against al-Qaeda targets using predator drones and the facts on the ground provided plenty of ammunition to those who opposed the escalation. It showed that the proposed actions would have little or no impact on either the Taliban or al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and would bring destabilizing political blowback.
In January 2006, the CIA had launched a missile strike on a residential compound in Damadola, near the Afghan border, on the basis of erroneous intelligence that Ayman al-Zawahiri would be there. The destruction killed as many 25 people, according to local residents interviewed by The Telegraph, including 14 members of one family.
Some 8,000 tribesmen in the Damadola area protested the killing, and in Karachi tens of thousands more rallied against the United States, shouting "Death to America!"
Musharraf later claimed that the dead included four high-ranking al-Qaeda officials, including al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law. The Washington Post‘s Craig Whitlock reported last week, however, that US and Pakistani officials now admit that only local villagers were killed in the strike.
It was well known within the counterterrorism community that the US search for al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan was severely limited by the absence of actionable intelligence. For years, the US military had depended almost entirely on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, despite its well-established ties with the Taliban and even al-Qaeda.
One of the counterterrorism officials without a direct organizational stake in the issue, State Department counterterrorism chief Gen. Dell L. Dailey, bluntly summed up the situation to reporters last January. "We don’t have enough information about what’s going on there," he said. "Not on al-Qaeda, not on foreign fighters, not on the Taliban."
A senior US official quoted by the Post last February was even more scathing on that subject, saying "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then."
Meanwhile, the Pakistani military, reacting to the US aim of a more aggressive US military role in the tribal areas, repeatedly rejected the US military proposal for training Frontier Corps units.
The US command in Afghanistan and SOCOM increased the pressure for escalation early last summer by enlisting visiting members of Congress in support of the plan. Texas Republican Congressmen Michael McCaul, who had visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, declared on his return that was "imperative that US forces be allowed to pursue the Taliban and al-Qaeda in tribal areas inside Pakistan."
In late July, according to the Times of London, Bush signed a secret national security presidential directive (NSPD) which authorized operations by special operations forces without the permission of Pakistan.
The Bush decision ignored the disconnect between the aims of the new war and the realities on the ground in Pakistan. Commando raids and missile strikes against mid-level or low-level Taliban or al-Qaeda operatives, carried out in a sea of angry Pashtuns, will not stem the flow of fighters from Pakistan into Afghanistan or weaken al-Qaeda. But they will certainly provoke reactions from the tribal population that can tilt the affected areas even further toward the Islamic radicals.
At least some military leaders without an institutional interest in the outcome understood that the proposed escalation was likely to backfire. One senior military officer told the Los Angeles Times last month that he had been forced by the "fragility of the current government in Islamabad," to ask whether "you do more long-term harm if you act very, very aggressively militarily."
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