Don't Go To Pakistan

by Adam Elkus

Special to Defense and the National Interest
August 5, 2007

A bipartisan call has come up: strike Pakistan. Homeland security advisor Frances Townsend declared that if the US had "actionable intelligence" about Al Qaeda's central command in Pakistan, she would "pursue” them. The Washington Post voiced support in an editorial for "targeted strikes" and "covert actions". Senate majority leader Harry Reid said that "I don't think we should take anything off the table … the invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the country, has created an area for Al Qaeda that didn't exist before the invasion, but we should go after them wherever they are."

Although the Pentagon has explicitly disavowed any plans for striking targets inside Pakistan, the groundwork has been prepared for paramilitary operations. A large American base is under construction on the Afghan-Pakistani borderline  and heavily armed drone aircraft have been deployed. Once completed, the Ghaki pass outpost will be ideal for cross-border fighting, and the drones can strike within Pakistan without putting Americans into Pakistani territory. Given that Washington is alarmed over Al-Qaeda's reconstitution in its Pakistani sanctuaries, the possibility of serious cross-border operations cannot be discounted.

What form would a cross-border raid take? Brookings Institution senior fellow Daniel Benjamin and the Council on Foreign Relations' Steve Simon have proposed the most detailed operational plan. In their New York Times op-ed, Benjamin and Simon lamented that defense department planning for strikes against Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan mushroomed in complexity – extra troops and organizational efforts were needed for intelligence gathering, force protection, communication, and extraction. Operational size ballooned to a point where any force sent would not be stealthy and mobile enough to accomplish the task. Benjamin and Simon's solution is to insert small CIA teams in mobile efforts they compared to the Israeli raid on Entebbe, Germany's 1977 rescue of Lufthansa passengers being held hostage in Mogadishu, and CIA operations with the Northern alliance in 2001 Afghanistan

This, to put it bluntly, is Mission Impossible substituting for foreign policy. Policymakers and politicians are imagining Tom Cruise, with his stealthy team of collaborators, infiltrating the tribal area, taking out terrorists, and safely extracting themselves without leaving any evidence of American involvement. Angelina Jolie plays the love interest, a Pakistani woman who falls for Cruise's chiseled American good looks and betrays her terrorist boyfriend, while Ving Rhames provides timely comic relief. While such a fantasy (especially if delivered with a suitably martial score and enough giant explosions) is entertaining in theaters, it would lead to nothing but disaster in practice.

There is a reason why Benjamin and Simon name-check Entebbe and Mogadishu they are both outliers with little relevance to the situation. Mogadishu was a one-off hostage rescue of a hijacked airplane that occurred with the active assistance of the host country. Entebbe was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that Israel took that could never be replicated, because – having trained Idi Amin's army, acquired detailed maps of the installation, and received human intelligence from released hostages and two military observers on the ground – Israel possessed enough intelligence to plan a thorough assault. It was also an operation that Israel did not need to mask – they cared little what Idi Amin's crackpot dictatorship thought of them. Both operations were small-scale raids.

An assault on Pakistan would take place in a lawless tribal region where the Pakistani government exerts purely symbolic control, a region that exists as a haven for terrorists. It's rural, insular, and fiercely autonomous inhabitants are naturally suspicious of all foreigners, and angry at the US-backed Pakistani military intervention. It is doubtful that they would aid heavily armed US special forces traipsing through the region by sheltering them or supplying them with the intelligence needed to root out Al Qaeda militants. And it is even more doubtful that CIA teams could do it without them.

It would make little difference if the Pakistani military assisted – they are just as unwelcome as Americans in the tribal regions because they killed their own countrymen under American pressure. The Pakistani military would also not be an accurate source of information, given their lack of control over the tribal region, corruption, and pro-Islamist sympathies. However, even if such an operation succeeded in taking out a few terrorist leaders, the problem would not be solved. Although details are sketchy, it appears that well-armed Al Qaeda and Taliban guerrilla forces are ensconced within a network of safe houses and camps. Dislodging and eliminating them is not going to be accomplished by a few raids with special forces and armed drones.

Benjamin and Simon's other major point of comparison is the CIA's role in Afghanistan. Small CIA teams infiltrated Afghanistan, gathering intelligence, directing Northern Alliance irregular and conventional forces, and "painting" targets for bombing with laser-designators. Though Benjamin and Simon use the CIA's campaign as a model, it was not the CIA who really destroyed the terrorist camps and put the Taliban to flight – it was the Northern Alliance's infantry forces, backed up by American air support. Neither option will be available in Pakistan's tribal regions.

The closest approximation of this setup would be the Pakistani army in collaboration with American special forces and drones. But past Pakistani forays have been miserable failures, resulting in heavy casualties and political unrest. And unlike the wealth of open targets in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, the enemy in this battle is elaborately concealed. Al Qaeda and the Taliban would most likely savage the joint Pakistani-American force with ambushes, improvised explosive devices, and suicide bombings. With the population unwilling to support foreigners and their Pakistani proxies, accurate intelligence would be hard to come by. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, operating freely within the civilian population, would be able to evade and counter such clumsy Pakistani-American incursion with devastating effect.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has proposed something more plausible: getting tribal elites to dispose of Al Qaeda and the Talban. CIA and special forces will supply them with guns, money, and development projects in return for cooperation. This dovetails with a plan already being drawn up by the State Department to back Pakistan's Frontier Corps, a non-state paramilitary force operating in the tribal regions. However, waging counterinsurgency in the tribal regions is fraught with risk.

Since pro-Taliban tribal factions are predominant in the insular tribal regions, the only tribal factions willing to cooperate will be the ones with the least influence. In fact, given the anti-American and anti-government attitudes shared by many tribesmen, American contact may actually reduce the legitimacy of tribal elites who cooperate. Given the failure of reconstruction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not unreasonable to question whether the aid will end up with corrupt Pakistani officials, drug smugglers, or pro-Taliban factions. Americans attempting to organize tribal units will also likely lack information on the constantly shifting tribal alliances that are the coin of the realm, increasing the chances of being sucked into tribal feuds or betrayed by their 'allies." Most importantly, creating a foreign-equipped private army at the expense of Pakistani state power could aid the tribal regions' separatism and create a political nightmare for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

No one advocating a cross-border campaign deals at length with how it will effect the Pakistani government. In fact, Benjamin and Simon preface one of their remarks by saying "setting aside the issue of whether this could politically upend President Pervez Musharraf." It would be nearly impossible to carry out a cross-border raid on Taliban and Al Qaeda forces without leaving evidence of American involvement and tacit Pakistani assistance. Such an affront, especially if it causes collateral damage, would severely weaken Musharraf and even threaten his hold on power. Musharraf faces unrest in the tribal region, suicide attacks directed by Islamists, and general disapproval over his authoritarian governing style.

The last thing he needs, especially when the public image of him is as of an American collaborator, is large-scale American operations carried out in the frontier regions, a campaign that will likely cause civilian casualties. Small raids involving CIA spy drones have already provoked bitter dispute in Pakistani domestic politics. In a worst-case scenario, American interference in the tribal regions could lead to an insurrection from Pakistan's military and intelligence services, which have noted Islamist sympathies and are already uneasy about being told to fight their countrymen for America’s sake in the tribal regions. The price of even a successful set of raids would be the severe weakening and possible demise of a crucial ally and regional destabilization.

The patent absurdity of such a tradeoff is symptomatic of Washington's national security policies. Bipartisan policymakers believe that strategic failure can be overcome with tactical victories, but one can "win" all the battles and still lose the war. The tragic results of such thinking are most evident in Iraq, where early euphoria over Saddam's overthrow soon gave way to the horror of market bombings and sectarian death squads.

Adam Elkus is a writer specializing in foreign policy and security. His work has been published in Foreign Policy in Focus, US Cavalry on Point, and Foreign Policy Forum.