After years of asserting repeatedly that the Musharraf regime is a steadfast and effective ally against al Qaeda, the Bush administration tried to cover up that stupefying blunder by talking tough about taking on the al Qaeda safe haven in Pakistan. Responding to a new National Intelligence Estimate on al Qaeda that confirmed, even in its public version, that the al Qaeda haven in Pakistan is more serious than the potential haven in Iraq, the White House had its counter-terrorism adviser, Francis Townsend announce that the option of applying military force unilaterally against the al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas is "on the table".
The talk about military options has not been limited to a lowly counter-terrorism adviser. NPR quoted the familiar and ever-quotable "senior administration official" as saying that, if the Pakistanis "don't have the ability" to take care of the al Qaeda presence, "we don't rule anything out".
The apparent abandonment by the administration of its former coziness with a military regime whose ties with the remnants of the Taliban regime and its Islamic extremist supporters have remained close despite its supposed alignment with the United States since 9/11 is certainly welcome - if it is really genuine. But this sudden tough talk about the military option in Pakistan is so clearly unrelated to reality that it can only be for domestic political consumption.
All of the military options available for dealing with al Qaeda's well-established base in Pakistan's tribal provinces, as summarized in a New York Times report, would make matters worse rather than better. The option of "deniable covert action" by special forces operating with the Pakistani military opposing them would carry an extremely high risk of capture of U.S. personnel, with predictably terrible consequences. Unilateral air strikes, which would have to depend on intelligence that Americans themselves could generate, would certainly kill more civilians than al Qaeda operatives and would inevitably strengthen the jidadists.
The third option of a large-scale ground operation in one or more of Pakistan's tribal areas would be an invitation to complete disaster. Al Qaeda's main leadership body in Pakistan has had the support of the jihadist Taliban movement with which the military regime's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate continues to be allied. In fact, the Afghan Government has made public the confession of a captured Taliban official that the head of the Afghan Taliban movement, Mullah Omar, operates in Quetta, Pakistan under the protection of the ISI Directorate.
Given the creation of a virtual jihadist mini-state in Pakistan's tribal areas, the terrorist haven problem is no longer confined to a relative handful of al Qaeda leaders. U.S. troops sent in to take down al Qaeda and its support network in Pakistan would have to contend with a vast, well-organized pro-Taliban and pro-al Qaeda jihadist political network. Such an operation would make the war in Anbar Province look like child's play. And in Pakistan, there would be no Sunni insurgents who hate al Qaeda to work with.
Bush seemed to understand the utter futility of sending the U.S. troops into Pakistan to look for bin Laden and his lieutenants last September, when he told a group of friendly journalists, "This thing about...let's put 100,000 of our special forces stomping through Pakistan in order to find bin Laden is just simply not the strategy that will work."
Many specialists on terrorism would go further and say that the U.S . military establishment is completely useless for disrupting terrorist networks. Former NSC staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon argue in Wednesday's Times that the U.S. military is "simply incapable of adapting its culture" so as to undertake the kinds of small commando operations that might succeed in certain cases.
Under these circumstances, the sudden conversion of the White House to the kind of threatening language ("No options are off the table") previously reserved for Iran should not be taken seriously. The most alarming thing about this phony invocation of military options is that the Democrats are again ritually endorsing it, as though it were the equivalent of the pledge of allegiance. On CBS Sunday, Harry Reid sounded like an echo chamber, saying, "I don't think we should take anything off the table." He should have demanded a halt to such nonsensical talk about the U.S. use of military force in Pakistan.
The brain-dead political reflex of mouthing a slogan about keeping the military option "on the table" is a way of avoiding the truth -- that there is no military fix for the terrorist haven in Pakistan, where a serious al Qaeda haven really does exist. The terrorist redoubt in Pakistan is the flashing red light signaling the urgent need for the articulation of a radical alternative program for dealing with the problem of terrorism.