Af-Pak Fever

The idea that anything has really changed, at least in the realm of foreign policy, with the ascension of Barack Obama to the White House, is now completely debunked by the administration’s latest pronouncement on the "Af-Pak" war. I quote from the "white paper" that accompanied the president’s spiel:

"The ability of extremists in Pakistan to undermine Afghanistan is proven, while insurgency in Afghanistan feeds instability in Pakistan. The threat that al-Qaeda poses to the United States and our allies in Pakistan – including the possibility of extremists obtaining fissile material – is all too real. Without more effective action against these groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan will face continuing instability."

That’s from the introduction to a curiously obtuse document, one that never tries to justify its various listed "objectives" with anything other than the most perfunctory scaremongering – precisely what the Bushies used to do. Remember the mushroom-cloud rhetoric that clouded the debate over the Iraq intervention? Averring that the mere possibility Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons posed such an imminent threat that definitive evidence was beside the point, then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice famously declared:"We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." These nukes, the White House and its allies claimed, could pass into the hands of terrorists, who would then have the capacity to nuke New York. In making the case for war with Iraq, the Bushies consistently conjured this fear of radioactive horror, the mental detritus of late-night sci-fi movies, Cold War memories of the Cuba missile crisis, and "duck and cover" drills in the schoolrooms of the Fifties and early Sixties.

This nuclear threat to the United States, supposedly posed by al-Qaeda hiding in the Pakistani hinterlands, is nowhere mentioned in the white paper except in that one instance. In fact, there is zero evidence that Pakistan’s 40-or-so nukes are in any danger, and none is cited. The idea that al-Qaeda and its allies are about to seize control of Islamabad and commandeer the country’s nuclear arsenal, is the sort of fantasy one might expect to find in a paperback thriller, or The Weekly Standard. As recently as a year ago, Adm. Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opined that Pakistan’s nukes were well-protected and there was little likelihood of them falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. This could be because, as Richard Sale reports,

"So while the nukes of any country are allegedly in danger of hijacking, apparently the new safeguards are such that the slightest error in procedure renders the weapon null and void, a system much like the one the Russian used with their portable nuclear weapons systems."

More here.

While Obama didn’t go nuclear, so to speak, in justifying his Af-Pak fever, he followed in the footsteps of his predecessor in waving the bloody shirt of 9/11 as the one reliable way to whip up war hysteria:

"So let me be clear: al-Qaeda and its allies – the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks – are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe-haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or allows al-Qaeda to go unchallenged – that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can."

While bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership recruited Mohammed Atta to carry out the 9/11 attacks from their safe haven in Afghanistan, the actual planning took place in Hamburg, Germany, where Atta and his cell of al-Qaeda cadre set up shop for years before the plan was executed, and various meetings in Malaysia, Florida, and Maryland.

If, indeed, al-Qaeda is planning attacks on the United States, which it no doubt is, the planning as well as the execution must of necessity take place near the target area.

The Obamaites have inherited the central thesis of Bush’s "war on terrorism." In spite of renaming it, they’ve kept the essential element of the Bushian strategy, which is to mount an offensive campaign, to go after al-Qaeda’s leaders in their nests. Yet this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the enemy.

This nonsensical idea that al-Qaeda is a regular military formation, not a viral spore spread throughout the globe, is why bin Laden is laughing at us a decade later. Even if the U.S. succeeded in killing or – better yet – capturing bin Laden, it would have little effect on the effort to eradicate his influence or the movement he created. Indeed, it would promote the world’s most famous terrorist and symbol of evil into a mythic figure, even larger in death than in life, aside from imbuing him with the martyr status all Islamists crave.

Surely the Obama people, for all their vaunted smartness, know this, but what it boils down to in the end is a war of retribution. That’s the real reason we’re in Afghanistan and venturing into Pakistan: to get bin Laden. And Obama knows just where he is:

"In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al-Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al-Qaeda’s leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe-haven to hide, train terrorists, communicate with followers, plot attacks, and send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world."

This qualified certitude – "almost certainly" – has a familiar ring to it: that’s what all the experts said about Saddam’s fabled "weapons of mass destruction." The Bush administration abjured all qualifiers and flatly declared they knew he had them. The Obamaites, being self-proclaimed "pragmatists," abjure all certainty as a matter of high principle.

Where is the evidence that bin Laden is in the tribal areas? Excuse me, but after eight years of cherry-picking, massaging, and outright fabricating "intelligence," pardon my skepticism, but before we get involved in what promises to be an even bigger quagmire, I want to see the proof – the intelligence reports and the satellite photos. Surely, for all our vaunted hi-tech weaponry and gadgetry – which comes at a cost of trillions – the U.S. military has the capacity to zoom in on the tribal areas and mount a pretty detailed surveillance. Let’s see the photos.

Aside from that, however, there is the complete absurdity of mounting a war of revenge. We are making a long-term commitment to the Af-Pak war because "almost certainly" a single man is hiding in the hinterlands of Pakistan’s tribal regions, with the rest of the top al-Qaeda leadership numbering no more than a dozen. At a cost of how many lives, most of them "collateral damage"? That is like the police, in chasing a murderer, firing into a crowd as he runs down the street. This is what American foreign policy is reduced to: a bully on the rampage, set on revenge.

Surely capturing bin Laden would be a feather in Obama’s cap, seeming to validate – in a facile manner – the Obamaite mantra that the Iraq war was wrong because it diverted resources and attention away from what ought to have been our target all along: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, in any case, the Obama administration means to make up for lost time.

Obama’s bilious peroration is filled with appeals to the Pakistani government and people deftly mixed with implied threats. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are enemies of the Pakistani people, he says, but if their government fails to act then we will, given credible and actionable intelligence that one of the bad guys is in town. Billions in aid for Pakistan will make effective nullification of their sovereignty go down a lot easier – unless, of course, al-Qaeda percolates out of the tribal areas, once the pressure is on, and into the cities.

On the Afghan side of the equation, our new commander in chief is setting up "benchmarks" and sternly lecturing the present government about the need to eradicate rampant corruption. They, too, will get billions. Our own schools, roads, and clinics may be crumbling, but, hey, get over it, it isn’t all about you – the Afghans are having their turn! I have no doubt that this argument will be used, if it hasn’t already, by the more perfervid Obamaites in defense of Dear Leader’s war. They are welcome to it, in any case.

This president knows there is no appetite for another war, and that’s what this rollout of the Af-Pak policy is designed to counteract, at least to some degree:

"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat-al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just."

However much we invoke 9/11 as our rationale for perpetual war, the task of preventing another such attack is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda’s attempts to penetrate outside remote areas, such as Pakistan’s tribal areas. Rather than launching a full-scale invasion and occupation of the region, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to throw a cordon around the area, to quarantine it? As a justification for what promises to be an even more costly military intervention, in terms of both human and material resources, this is awfully – embarrassingly – thin.

They told me to give Obama a chance, that he’s just gotten into office and it takes time to effect real change: yes, well, that approach may have had some credibility in the beginning, but now that we’re approaching the end of the first 100 days and our new president has made his first major foreign policy pronouncement, the time to give Obama the benefit of every doubt is over. What he is proposing is more than a mere "surge" – it is a rising tsunami of unimaginable proportions, one that will make the Iraq war seem like a minor swell.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].