The U.S. targeting of Abu Yahya al-Libi, the number-two man in al-Qaeda, continues the American quest to kill its way out of its terrorist problem using pilotless drones, Special Forces raids, and other secret methods. Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of the U.S. military’s central command and author of its counterinsurgency manual, used to believe that trying to kill your way out of any sort of insurgency was counterproductive. He believed that while you might dispatch a group’s leadership using such martial methods, the end result would be more militants streaming to the insurgent cause. But now, ironically, Petraeus is director of the CIA, the agency in charge of the targeted assassination program in Pakistan.
Not only is this assassination effort questionable from a legal standpoint, but it has also caused an anti-American backlash in Pakistan, making a nuclear-armed nation much less stable than it was in 2001. This may very well be the worst spillover effect of the U.S. nation-building debacle in Afghanistan.
Of course, proponents of the drone attacks in Pakistan would argue that the United States has a right of self-defense in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Yet the drone strikes have gone beyond striking the perpetrators of 9/11 (al-Qaeda) and those who harbored them (the Afghan Taliban), as authorized by the congressional resolution in 2001; they have been targeting the Pakistani Taliban, whose goal is to topple the Pakistani government. In fact, the Pakistani Taliban did not even exist on 9/11 and are largely a creation of the backlash and resulting instability associated with the heavy U.S. footprint in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now the Pakistani Taliban are targeting the U.S. homeland, as demonstrated by the bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square. This fits a historical pattern: the U.S. government has a knack for unnecessarily creating new enemies.
Among American policymakers and the public, Pakistan has a reputation for either not being sufficiently concerned with neutralizing al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban or even actively aiding them. The Pakistani government is even seen as sluggish in combating a threat to its own rule, the Pakistani Taliban. Few Americans even make an attempt to understand the Pakistani perspective.
The angry Pakistani people feel that the American war in Afghanistan is not their war — the 9/11 attacks didn’t emanate from Pakistan and, at the time, no one there harbored the attackers — yet they are incurring severe costs in increased instability because of it. As Imran Khan, a former cricket star and one of the most popular opposition politicians in Pakistan, said about the U.S. war in Afghanistan, “This is not our war, so let’s get out of it.” The Pakistani public feels that the American drone strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and are causing increased Islamist militancy in the country’s western tribal regions and elsewhere.
In private, Pakistani government officials would say that in exchange for U.S. aid, they are looking the other way while the U.S. conducts drone attacks on their soil, even in the face of overwhelming Pakistani public outrage, and had been allowing most of the supplies for the United States’ Afghan War to transit through Pakistan until the American killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers with a drone strike made that impossible.
In fact, from the Pakistan government’s perspective, it has acquiesced or assisted in the capture or killing of most of 9/11’s perpetrators and al-Qaeda’s leaders on its soil. Neutralizing the Afghan Taliban is another matter. Pakistan has always known that the United States would leave Afghanistan one day; then the only influence Pakistan would have to compete with its archenemy India would be through the Afghan Taliban. So Pakistan has been reluctant to give up support for those fighters.
Pakistan would have been a much happier and stabler place if the United States had avoided an extended post-9/11 nation-building war in Afghanistan in favor of selected attempts to go after al-Qaeda leaders. This approach would have also provided more security at a far lower cost to the American public.