Hot debate as Obama's war drones on
- From: PakistanPal <pakistanpal@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 2 Apr 2009 03:49:54 -0700 (PDT)
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The argument for deeper United States military commitment
to the Afghan war invoked by President Barack Obama in his first major
policy statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday - that al-Qaeda
must be denied a safe haven in Afghanistan - has not been subjected to
public debate in Washington.
A few influential strategists in Washington have been arguing,
however, that this official rationale misstates the al-Qaeda problem
and ignores the serious risk that an escalating US war poses to
Those strategists doubt that al-Qaeda would seek to move into
Afghanistan as long as they are ensconced in Pakistan and argue that
escalating US Predator drone airstrikes or special operations raids on
Taliban targets in Pakistan will actually strengthen radical jihadi
groups in the country and weaken the Pakistani government's ability to
The first military strategist to go on record with such a dissenting
view on Afghanistan and Pakistan was Colonel T X Hammes, a retired US
Marine Corps officer and author of the 2004 book The Sling and the
Stone, which argued that the US military faces a new type of warfare
which it would continue to lose if it did not radically re-orient its
thinking. He became more widely known as one of the first military
officers to call, in September 2006, for defense secretary Donald
Rumsfeld's resignation over failures in Iraq.
Hammes dissected the rationale for the US military presence in
Afghanistan in an article last September on the website of the "Small
Wars Journal", which specializes in counter-insurgency issues. He
questioned the argument that Afghanistan had to be stabilized to deny
al-Qaeda a terrorist base there, because, "Unfortunately, al-Qaeda has
moved its forces and its bases into Pakistan."
Hammes suggested that the Afghan war might actually undermine the
tenuous stability of a Pakistani regime, thus making the al-Qaeda
threat far more serious. He complained that "neither candidate has
even commented on how our actions [in Afghanistan] may be feeding
Hammes, who has since joined the Institute for Defense Analysis, a
Pentagon contractor, declined to comment on the Obama administration's
rationale for the Afghan war for this article.
Kenneth Pollack, the director of research at the Saban Center for
Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution, has also expressed
doubt about the official argument for escalation in Afghanistan.
Pollack's 2002 book, The Threatening Storm, was important in
persuading opinion-makers in Washington to support the George W Bush
administration's use of US military force against the Saddam Hussein
regime, and he remains an enthusiastic supporter of the US military
presence in Iraq.
But at a Brookings forum on December 16, Pollack expressed serious
doubts about the strategic rationale for committing the US military to
Afghanistan. Contrasting the case for war in Afghanistan with the one
for war in Iraq in 2003, he said it is "much harder to see the tie
between Afghanistan and our vital interests".
Like Hammes, Pollack argued that it is Pakistan, where al-Qaeda's
leadership has flourished since being ejected from Afghanistan, which
could clearly affect those vital interests. And additional US troops
in Afghanistan, Pollack pointed out, "are not going to solve the
problems of Pakistan".
Responding to a question about the possibility of US attacks against
Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan paralleling the US efforts during the
Vietnam War to clean out the communist "sanctuaries" in Cambodia,
Pollack expressed concern about that possibility. "The more we put the
troops into Afghanistan," said Pollack, "the more we are tempted to
mount cross-border operations into Pakistan, exactly as we did in
Pollack cast doubt on the use of either drone bombing attacks or
special operations commando raids into Pakistan as an approach to
dealing with the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. "The only way to do
it is to mount a full-scale counter-insurgency campaign," said
Pollack, "which seems unlikely in the case of Pakistan."
The concern raised by Hammes and Pollack about the war in Afghanistan
spilling over into Pakistan dovetails with concerns in the US
intelligence community about the effect on Pakistan of commando raids
by special operations forces based in Afghanistan against targets
In mid-August 2008, the National Intelligence Council presented to the
White House the consensus view of the intelligence community that such
special forces raids, which were then under consideration, could
threaten the unity of the Pakistani military if continued long
Despite that warning, a commando raid was carried out on a target in
South Waziristan on September 3, reportedly killing as many as 20
people, mostly apparently civilians. A Pentagon official told Army
Times reporter Sean D Naylor that the raid was in response to cross-
border activities by Taliban allies with the complicity of the
Pakistani military's Frontier Corps.
Although that raid was supposed to be the beginning of a longer
campaign, it was halted because of the virulence of the political
backlash in Pakistan that followed, according to Naylor's September 29
report. The raid represented "a strategic miscalculation", one US
official told Naylor. "We did not fully appreciate the vehemence of
the Pakistani response."
The Pakistani military sent a strong message to Washington by
demonstrating that they were willing to close down US supply routes
through the Khyber Pass and by talking about shooting at US
The commando raids were put on hold for the time being, but the issue
of resuming them was part of the Obama administration's policy review.
That aspect of the review has not been revealed.
Meanwhile, airstrikes by drone aircraft in Pakistan have sharply
increased in recent months, increasingly targeting Pashtun allies of
Last week, apparently anticipating one result of the policy review,
the New York Times reported Obama and his national security advisers
were considering expanding the strikes by drone aircraft from the
tribal areas of northwest Pakistan to Quetta, Balochistan, where top
Taliban leaders are known to be located.
But Daniel Byman, a former US Central Intelligence Agency analyst and
counter-terrorism policy specialist at Georgetown University, who has
been research director on the Middle East at the RAND corporation,
told the Times that, if drone attacks were expanded as is now being
contemplated, al-Qaeda and other jihadi organizations might move
"farther and farther into Pakistan, into cities".
Byman believes that would risk "weakening the government we want to
bolster", which he says is "already to some degree a house of cards".
The Times report suggested that some officials in the administration
agree with Byman's assessment.
The drone strikes are admitted by US officials to be so unpopular with
the Pakistani public that no Pakistani government can afford to appear
to tolerate them, the Times reported.
But such dissenting views as those voiced by Hammes, Pollack and Byman
are unknown on Capitol Hill. At a hearing on Afghanistan before a
subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee last
Thursday, the four witnesses were all enthusiastic supporters of
escalation, and the argument that US troops must fight to prevent al-
Qaeda from getting a new sanctuary in Afghanistan never even came up
Article Source : http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KD01Df04.html
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