WASHINGTON, Mar 28 (IPS) - The argument for deeper U.S. military commitment to the Afghan War invoked by President Barack Obama in his first major policy statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan Friday - that al Qaeda must be denied a safe haven in Afghanistan - has been not been subjected to public debate in Washington.
A few influential strategists here have been arguing, however, that this official rationale misstates the al Qaeda problem and ignores the serious risk that an escalating U.S. war poses to Pakistan.
Those strategists doubt that al Qaeda would seek to move into Afghanistan as long as they are ensconced in Pakistan and argue that escalating U.S. 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 resist them.
The first military strategist to go on record with such a dissenting view on Afghanistan and Pakistan was Col. T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine officer and author of the 2004 book “The Sling and the Stone”, which argued that the U.S. military faces a new type of warfare which it would continue to lose if it did not radically reorient its thinking. He became more widely known as one of the first military officers to call in September 2006 for Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation over failures in Iraq.
Col. Hammes dissected the rationale for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in an article last September on the website of the “Small Wars Journal”, which specialises in counterinsurgency issues. He questioned the argument that Afghanistan had to be stabilised in order 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 Pakistan’s instability.”
Hammes, who has since joined the Institute for Defence 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 Centre 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 Bush administration’s use of U.S. military force against the Saddam Hussein regime, and he remains an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
But at a Brookings forum Dec. 16, Pollack expressed serious doubts about the strategic rationale for committing the U.S. 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 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pollack pointed out, “are not going to solve the problems of Pakistan.”
Responding to a question about the possibility of U.S. attacks against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan paralleling the U.S. 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 Vietnam.”
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 counterinsurgency 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 paralleled concerns in the U.S. intelligence community about the effect on Pakistan of commando raids by U.S. Special Operations forces based in Afghanistan against targets inside Pakistan. 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 enough, as IPS reported Sep. 9.
Despite that warning, a commando raid was carried out on a target in South Waziristan Sep. 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 Sep. 29 report. The raid represented “a strategic miscalculation,” one U.S. 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 U.S. supply routes through the Khyber Pass talking about shooting at U.S. helicopters.
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 the Taliban.
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, Baluchistan, where top Taliban leaders are known to be located.
But Daniel Byman, a former CIA 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 jihadist organisations 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 U.S. 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 Capital Hill. At a hearing on Afghanistan before a subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee Thursday, the four witnesses were all enthusiastic supporters of escalation, and the argument that U.S. troops must fight to prevent al Qaeda from getting a new sanctuary in Afghanistan never even came up for discussion.
*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.