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Panetta's Grand Tour

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Leon Panetta, newly-installed Secretary of Defense and former CIA head, made a tour of troubled hot spots in the Middle East. His stopovers in Kabul, Baghdad et al were punctuated by a series of barbed remarks aimed at leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan was the prime target. The simmering conflict between Washington and Islamabad has become scalding. American leaders are turning the vise as tightly as they can in an all-out effort to force Pakistan to do its bidding by fighting without qualification or limit those radical forces who the United States identifies as terrorists and enemies. It is an inclusive category that covers al-Qaeda, the Taliban in all its component parts, the Haqqani network and Punjabi groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Pakistanis' claim that its stake in Afghanistan's political future requires them to maintain links with diverse elements is rejected out of hand as illegitimate. The Americans are bent on making their own deal with the Taliban and on their own terms. Initial talks left Pakistan out in the cold. Most audaciously, the White House is convinced that it knows better than the Pakistanis themselves what path leads to political stability in that increasing fractured country. Instruction and admonition have become the standard mode of address.

For their part, the Pakistani military leadership has stood toe to toe with the senior American officials who have been arriving in relays since Osama bin Laden's capture. In one especially acrimonious meeting between General Kayani and Leon Panetta a few weeks back, the latter came ready to read the riot act to his counterparts. To his shock, they retorted in kind. For Washington, that was the last straw. From then on it has been an all-out campaign against the Pakistani government. The starkest message was sent by the bombing of the Haqqani bases in Pakistan within 36 hours of the assault in Kabul on the Intercontinental Hotel. It was a blunt way of saying: we will strike your supposed clients and will do so on any pretext. Pulling out all stops, the Obama people last week publicly accused the ISI of ordering the killing of investigative journalist Saleem Shazad. It also played up accusations that the military heads had been bribed by North Korea years ago to give it nuclear enrichment technology. On the weekend, Washington announced the cancellation of hundreds of millions in military and civilian aid. Government sources explained that it is meant to "chasten" Pakistan for expelling American trainers and to press the army to take on the entire array of militants on Pakistani soil. Pakistani authorities have retaliated by announcing the eviction of the Americans from the Shamsi air base in Baluchistan, which has served as the launch pad for drone operations on both sides of the Durand line. They also have turned a blind eye to attacks against Afghan border units. These steps followed the rescinding of visas for hundreds of CIA operatives and contract auxiliaries.

In effect Washington wants to take de facto control of Pakistani's intelligence operations and military missions in the Northwest. The reply: not on your life, this is our country, we are not Fatah and we are sovereign here. That Pakistani retort leaves the White House unmoved. Obama and his men believe that a distracted Pakistani military (and civilian government) will be unable to block unilateral American efforts to wipe out the remnants of al-Qaeda, Taliban leadership and the Haqqani network -- by drones, by incursions from Afghanistan, by the corps of operatives already in Pakistan. Strife in Pakistan? a more rabidly anti-American government? jeopardizing nuclear weapons? If the people 'owned' by the Americans don't come out of top, then: the U.S. still will have crushed its 'terrorist' enemies; gotten permanent Afghan bases to add to those in Iraq, Kuwait and Kyrghyzstan, and perhaps neutralized those nuclear weapons.

The American position is foreign policy by adrenaline rush -- the high produced by slaying Osama bin Laden. It has no grounding in understanding or logic. It betrays monumental ignorance of the Pakistani elite -- of what makes them tick. It reflects no cost/benefit calculus or estimate of probabilities. It lacks all proportion and perspective. It reeks of hubris.

In Kabul on Saturday, Panetta proclaimed that the United States was "within reach of strategically defeating Al-Qaeda." He did not explain how Washington defines 'Al-Qaeda' today. Nor did he specify what is meant by 'defeat.' Those are critical omissions. Without greater precision we are not in a position to assess the significance of the statement or to estimate the likelihood of success in meeting the American objective. It was simpler in the wake of 9/11. Then it was thought that Al-Qaeda was a unitary organization, hierarchically structured and with clear command and control. In other words, sort of like Goldman Sachs. That is certainly not the case nowadays. Remnants of 'classic Al-Qaeda' haunt the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its leadership is fragmented, its foot soldiers scattered. Al-Qaeda today is at best a loose holding company; more likely, little more than a franchise operation. Moreover, its franchise units seem to have limited operational capability.

Secretary Panetta made specific reference to U.S. born Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and unnamed members of al-Sabah in Somalia. There is a glancing reference to Al-Qaeda in North Africa. But al-Sabah has a Somalian agenda and none of its leaders have been involved in attacks on American interests for thirteen years. It has no known capability to do anything on American territory. Al-Awlaki is the supposed instigator of two failed airline plots most noteworthy for their amateurishness. As for AQNA, it is little more than a crime family specializing in equal opportunity kidnapping and extortion. What to make of this picture? Most striking is that the United States does not seem to be in danger of serious Al-Qaeda directed terrorist acts on its homeland for the foreseeable future. There is almost no likelihood of another 9/11 attempt. Second, inchoate groups of activists with some potential to develop over time an approximation of a dangerous capability can be found in an number of places -- including Hamburg and other European cities. So why concentrate a huge effort in AfPak that drains hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury, inflicts casualties on thousands of Americans, ravages the Afghan countryside and undercuts America's standing in the world? The answer is inertia -- intellectual, psychological, organizational and political. Change is a forlorn hope as the Obama people continue the tradition of at once evoking a generation long war on terror and trumpeting their stellar successes.