Pakistan chooses the Hellfire option
The White House has backed away from using American commandos for further ground raids into Pakistan after furious complaints from its government, relying instead on an intensifying campaign of airstrikes by the Central Intelligence Agency against militants in the Pakistani mountains.Pakistan's position is irrational. Its government insist that the US respect its sovereignty, but it refuses to enforce the same requirements on al Qaeda and the Taliban, and it does not insist that the Taliban respect Afghanistan's sovereignty. At best the Pakistan position is incoherent. It certainly is not one worthy of respect.
According to American and Pakistani officials, attacks by remotely piloted Predator aircraft have increased sharply in frequency and scope in the past three months. Through Sunday, there were at least 18 Predator strikes since the beginning of August, some deep inside Pakistan’s tribal areas, compared with 5 strikes during the first seven months of 2008.
At the same time, however, officials said that relying on airstrikes alone, the United States would be unable to weaken Al Qaeda’s grip in the tribal areas permanently. Within the government, advocates of the ground raids have argued that only by sending Special Operations forces into Pakistan can the United States successfully capture suspected operatives and interrogate them for information about top Qaeda leaders.
The decision to focus on an intensified Predator campaign using Hellfire missiles appears to reflect dwindling options on the part of the White House for striking a blow against Al Qaeda in the Bush administration’s waning days.
After months of debate within the administration and mounting frustration over Pakistan’s failure to carry out more aggressive counterterrorism operations, President Bush finally gave his approval in July for ground missions inside Pakistan. But the only American ground mission known to have taken place was a Special Operations raid on Sept. 3, in which the roughly two dozen people killed included some civilians. American officials say there has not been another commando operation since.
American officials acknowledge that following the Sept. 3 raid they were surprised by the intensity of the Pakistani response, which included an unannounced visit to Washington, three weeks after the incursion, by the country’s national security adviser, Mahmud Ali Durrani. He registered his anger in person with top White House officials, including Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser.
A senior administration official said Sunday that no tacit agreement had been reached between the sides to allow increased Predator strikes in exchange for a backing off from additional American ground raids, an option the officials said remained on the table. But Pakistani officials have made clear in public statements that they regard the Predator attacks as a less objectionable violation of Pakistani sovereignty.“There’s always a balance between respecting full Pakistani sovereignty, even in places where they’re not capable of exercising that sovereignty, and the need for our force protection,” said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Where does this reflexive concern for US boots on the ground come from? It is not like the US has any desire to occupy Pakistan. However, if Pakistan cannot control the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda on its own, it should accept the US help in doing so that the war will end sooner.