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Preparing the American Invasion of Pakistan

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Gareth Porter has an interesting article detailing the CIA's own misgivings about the drone program in Pakistan. He reports [emphasis mine]:

"Some of the CIA operators are concerned that, because of its blowback effect, it is doing more harm than good," said Jeffrey Addicott, former legal adviser to U.S. Special Forces and director of the Centre for Terrorism Law at St Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, in an interview with IPS. [...]

Because the drone strikes kill innocent civilians and bystanders along with leaders from far away, they "infuriate the Muslim male", said Addicott, thus making them more willing to join the movement. The men in Pakistan's tribal region "view Americans as cowards and weasels", he added. [...]

The complaints by CIA operatives about the drone strikes' blowback effect reported by Addicott are identical to warnings by military and intelligence officials reported in April 2009 by Jonathan Landay of McClatchy newspapers. Landay quoted an intelligence official with deep involvement in both Afghanistan and Pakistan as saying al Qaeda and the Taliban had used the strikes in propaganda to "portray Americans as cowards who are afraid to face their enemies and risk death".

It's easy to see this as only the ten thousandth reason why the drone strikes are a terrible idea, but the CIA's complaints here could actually hint at something even more dangerous. The Taliban and Al-Qa'eda recruit heavily from propaganda about American cowardice, that's the blowback. The CIA is not questioning fundamental assumptions about the War on Terror, like whether or not extra-judicial executions of suspected criminals is actually a real solution, rather than an escalation of senseless political violence. No, let's be very clear about what the CIA complaint is: we're far away, and that's bad. There's more:

"The people at the top are not believers," said Addicott, referring to the CIA. "They know that the objective is not going to be achieved."

That objective is to destroy the leadership of the Taliban and Al-Qa'eda. They believe they can't do that with drone strikes, or at least drone strikes alone. The drone strikes are politically unpopular, and even some serious COIN bloggers criticize the program bitterly. Basically, they're looking for an excuse to do something more than drone strikes in Pakistan. President Obama may have found that excuse:

The U.S. military is reviewing options for a unilateral strike in Pakistan in the event that a successful attack on American soil is traced to the country's tribal areas, according to senior military officials.[...]

The U.S. options for potential retaliatory action rely mainly on air and missile strikes, but could also employ small teams of U.S. Special Operations troops already positioned along the border with Afghanistan.[...]

In other words, if there is another incident like the car bomb in Times Square, America could send troops into Pakistan. Beyond these new plans, the military already has the authorization to deploy American soldiers there [emphasis mine]:

The secret directive, signed in September by Gen. David H. Petraeus, authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces. Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate. [...]

Its goals are to build networks that could "penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy" Al Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to "prepare the environment" for future attacks by American or local military forces, the document said. [...]

In broadening its secret activities, the United States military has also sought in recent years to break its dependence on the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies for information in countries without a significant American troop presence. [...]

Looks like the military agrees with the CIA that the agency's drone strikes can't do the job. They want American military forces on the ground.

For their part, Pakistan doesn't want any American troops on the ground in those tribal areas. Or do they? The Pakistani military supports the Taliban as part of its national security strategy, so even when they attack Taliban areas, they usually only succeed at displacing huge numbers of civilians while the Taliban flees, which creates enormous popular backlash. The military declares victory, pulls out, and the Taliban returns safely. Take the most recent army incursion into Orakzai district:

A statement issued by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) said that the Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's visit to Orakzai marked the end of the military operation in the region, and that people displaced due to the war could expect to return to their homeland soon.[...]

However, locals said that the battle is far from over, as extremists are still holding a large part of the agency.

"The military has cleared only Lower Orakzai, while the situation in upper and central Orakzai has not changed much, as the army is yet to evict the Taliban from these areas. The battle is far from over," The Daily Times quoted local residents of Lower Orakzai, as saying.

"In Upper Orakzai, security forces took control of Daburi, while Mamozai, Ghaljo and Shahoo areas are still in Taliban control," they added.

General Kayani gets to have it both ways. The Taliban are safe, while he still declares victory over the terrorists. This Dawn editorial explains:

Therein lies a great difficulty that the army has struggled to overcome: moving from the 'clear' phase of counter-insurgency to the 'hold' stage, so that the ground can be laid for the 'build' and 'transfer' stages. From Bajaur to Mohmand and Bara to FR Peshawar, the phenomenon has repeated itself: operations by security forces to clear out an area are deemed a 'success' only to see militants sneak back in the weeks and months that follow. Sometimes forces are withdrawn from one area to focus on another trouble spot, leaving a vacuum in the first area which is soon filled by militants, as has happened in FR Peshawar after security forces were sent from there to deal with militants in Kala Dhaka, Mansehra.

What also makes the claim about success in Orakzai doubtful is geography. The Khyber-Orakzai-Kurram border areas have long been centres of militancy. If Orakzai is clear, then by that logic the Tirah area in Khyber and the east of Kurram should be clear too. However, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Is it really a difficulty that the army has struggled to overcome? Or is it going exactly according to plan? Are they not clearing at all, but rather "herding" the militants to safety? The editorial is right that geography is important here. Many of the militants in Orakzai have fled from recent operations in Waziristan. Now they are fleeing from one part of Orakzai to another, farther away from the northern tribal areas. The Pakistani army is, apparently, pushing the militants away from the tribal areas and towards Balochistan, where the Taliban's Quetta Shura is based. The result is that even if the US invades the tribal areas, it still won't damage the military assets (the Taliban).

We see more preparations by the army in Balochistan:

[Baloch Human Rights Council] has learnt through local sources and press statements of Baloch National Movement (BNM) central leadership that within the last couple of days there has been a significant movement of Pakistani troops in the area of district Gwadar and Dasht. A heavy contingent of military including 80 trucks carrying soldiers, 40 armoured vehicles, artillery, 8 gunship helicopters, and 20 water supplying tankers are reportedly part of the first wave of troop deployment in the region. There is news of more troops on the way to join the military operation.

And this isn't some half-assed "Taliban-clearing" operation, this is for real:

Reports coming in from the area stated that the soldiers have complete control of the meager water resources and have blocked all access to the local population. The livestock has been confiscated in the service of the soldiers and a large number was slaughtered to starve the inhabitants. Sources mentioned that people are not allowed to leave their homes even in case of a medical emergency.

There have been reported incidents of artillery fire directed at the civilian residential areas while gunship helicopters hovered over the towns. According to witnesses, incidents of aerial bombardment of villages have taken place and the fear of casualties is growing, complicated by the military blockade and denial of access to media and medical personnel. An unconfirmed number of youth has been taken away by the soldiers and their whereabouts are yet unknown.

Here's the catch: Unlike the relatively autonomous Pakistanis in the tribal regions, the Pakistanis in Balochistan are so beat down and oppressed by the army that they would welcome a NATO presence (who they believe, foolishly, would help them fight for independence). But as we noted, the Taliban's all-important Quetta Shura is in Balochistan, so the Pakistani military can't have any American troops that close to a key military asset. So they instead "clear" Balochistan of "Islamic terrorists" (democratic Baloch dissidents, not Taliban) and remove it from American calculations.

What is the end result? The Pakistani military has effectively fortified the Quetta Shura, while paving the way for American invasion of North and South Waziristan, Pakhtunkhwa, etc. And just like Kayani, everyone gets to declare a fake victory. President Obama gets to look tough by cracking down on attacks from the tribal area, the Pakistanis can throw a fit and claim they already "cleared" those areas, we downplay the harm of the drone strikes (we're not cowards anymore), Kayani protects his state-sponsored terrorism program (the Taliban), the army has an excuse to viciously crush Baloch separatists, and even Al-Qa'eda itself will be rewarded with another propaganda victory, that of more American "crusaders" on Pashtun soil.

Who doesn't get to declare victory? Everybody else. American troop deaths will continue to skyrocket, American taxpayers will continue to pay for it as their economy crumbles, Pakistani civilians will be massacred by all sides, Pakistani democracy will continue to suffocate under military despotism, and the Taliban will still threaten the national security of countless nations, most notoriously nuclear-armed India.

For those keeping count, that's three simultaneous US wars; Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Shall we go for Iran and make it an even four? North Korea sure is getting uppity. I feel stupid now for questioning Tom Hayden's claims about the so-called Long War. Even as withdrawal from Iraq becomes conventional wisdom, and we continue to force Congress to end the war in Afghanistan, it's still not over. 104 months into the outrageous War on Terror, it appears we're just getting started.

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I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.