A US attack on Pakistan?

With growing militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Daniel J. Simons of the Washington-based Council

A stable Afghanistan requires Pakistan to curtail militancy on its side of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Washington, having doled out $8 billion in military aid to Pakistan since 9/11, wants proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Pakistan is pulling its weight. But fresh evidence illustrates that Pakistan's deeds do not match its reassuring words. Exhibit A: Pakistani peace deals with militant groups earlier this year precipitated a 40 percent increase in attacks in eastern Afghanistan. Exhibit B: U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan face regular militant assaults emanating from Pakistan, most recently a Taliban attack on a remote outpost that killed nine American soldiers.

As evidence mounts that Islamabad is unable or unwilling to tackle Islamist militancy in its tribal belt, the drumbeat for a more aggressive American policy against militant sanctuaries in Pakistan – including incursions by U.S. Special Forces on Pakistani soil – grows louder. While Pakistan's failure to curb militancy in its sovereign territory is unquestionably a cause for deep frustration, this reflexive response to Pakistan’s perceived inertia would be a serious mistake.

Viewed solely through the prism of Afghanistan, a more assertive unilateral policy is justified. But an invasive “Whack-A-Mole” approach would be profoundly counterproductive to America’s core objective in Pakistan’s tribal areas: creating a society in which terrorism is anathema, so that 20 years from now the region does not threaten American national security as it does today. Only a prolonged counterinsurgency effort, with Pakistan as a dedicated managing partner and the United States and other like-minded countries as financial backers and advisers, can accomplish this tall order.

The blunt instruments of a unilateral U.S. counterterrorist campaign are inconsistent with this counterinsurgency mission. The transformation of Pakistan’s tribal areas will require sustained U.S.-Pakistani collaboration and the support of the region’s people, both of which will wither in the wake of a U.S. military operation in Pakistan.

Washington must, then, achieve a tenuous balancing act: limiting the threat that terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas pose to the United States (both in Afghanistan and at home) while simultaneously carrying out the security and development components of counterinsurgency that are essential to quell militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas over the longer run. An assertive, unilateral U.S. military strategy is more likely to compound our problems than to solve them.

The first problem with a military ground incursion is that the marginal benefit of eliminating any single militant or terrorist is low. Unless a strike’s victim has symbolic value (like bin Laden or al-Zawahiri) or has unique knowledge in the construction of weapons of mass destruction or, to a lesser extent, IEDs, his contribution can be roughly replaced by one of thousands of alienated, unemployed young Pakistanis or Afghans.

Second, even a tactically successful operation will spawn many more terrorists over the long run than it eliminates. American missile strikes by unmanned aerial Predators in Pakistan’s tribal belt, of which four have been reported in 2008 alone, already meet with popular backlash. Given the insurmountable resistance in the Muslim world to having U.S. troops on the ground, an American invasion of Pakistani soil will foment substantially more fervent and widespread antipathy toward the United States than do periodic air strikes. At the least, Pakistan’s fragile democratic government would rebuke an incursion in the harshest possible terms and distance itself from the United States.

A policy of non-invasion does not mean Washington should ignore militants in Pakistan. On the contrary, the United States should focus more intelligence resources on the region. More U.S. troops should be deployed jointly with Afghan forces to patrol the border from the Afghan side. Targeted Predator strikes are an established tool by which the United States can judiciously project force into Pakistan, when done with acute recognition of the costs of collateral damage.

Of course, abstaining from invasive military action is justified only if counterinsurgency progresses in turn. If programmed effectively, the Biden-Lugar legislation introduced last week – which proposes to triple U.S. non-military aid to Pakistan to $7.5 billion over the next five years – would be a positive step. Its passage would demonstrate Washington’s commitment to Pakistan’s civilian government.
In return for such a generous pledge, though, Washington should seek to redefine relations with Pakistan, which evolved ad hoc after 9/11. Detailing how we expect Islamabad to help realize mutually agreeable aims is a necessary step toward a more collaborative and sustainable relationship. Putting American troops on Pakistani soil would negate any potential benefits of the Biden-Lugar legislation.

A nuclear-armed Islamic republic of 165 million people, Pakistan might give the president nightmares even as a nominal ally. But if an American incursion on Pakistani soil causes Islamabad to sever this problematic and frustrating, but ultimately salvageable, relationship, the commander-in-chief will sleep nary a wink.