I’m talking, of course, about the U.S. war in (with?) Pakistan. Last Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA was ready to beg, borrow, or steal any armed drone the U.S. military could spare to expand what has morphed from a “covert” assassination campaign against al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders into something closer to a full-scale robot air war over the Pakistani tribal borderlands, especially North Waziristan.
As the CIA’s drone war escalates, so have airborne border crossings of a different sort. U.S. helicopters are pursuing “fleeing” Taliban fighters as part of what the military terms armed “self-defense,” once known as “hot pursuit,” into those Pakistani “sanctuaries” from which the Taliban is said to be conducting its own successful surge in Afghanistan. (“Enraged and embarrassed,” Pakistani officials have responded to the incursions by closing a key border crossing that supplies the American war effort in Afghanistan — and the Taliban has torched a series of fuel trucks left idling near Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, by that blocked crossing.) Clearly escalating as well is the frustration of U.S. commanders at an enemy elusively lurking across a largely unmarked frontier.
And what’s happened so far may be only the beginning. In his new book, Bob Woodward reports that Obama administration officials, military and civilian, were eager to do something more in Pakistan as early as the fall of 2009. As Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, put it obliquely but clearly enough to the Pakistani ambassador at the time, if his country didn’t agree to a “strategic partnership,” essentially by moving against militant networks in North Waziristan, “[W]e will have to do what we must to protect U.S. interests.” Last Sunday, Greg Miller of the Washington Post reported that the administration’s Afghan War “review” back then had actually “centered largely on the need to eliminate insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan.” He also noted that Afghan War commander General David Petraeus is now advocating “a more aggressive posture with Pakistan, and [has] been particularly supportive of the CIA drone effort.”
If one passage in recent news reports raised a warning flag, however, it’s this eerie one from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, which should give any reader the creeps: “U.S. officials say a successful terrorist strike against the West emanating from Pakistan could force the U.S. to take unilateral military action — an outcome all parties are eager to avoid.” Such a strike would “force” the U.S. “to take unilateral military action”? Think about that for a moment. Amid a sudden drumbeat of announcements of possible strikes by Pakistani-based terrorist groups in Europe, there may, in fact, be a growing contingent of U.S. military and civilian officials so frustrated with the disastrous war in Afghanistan that they are ready to expand the war significantly in Pakistan, and are only awaiting the necessary excuse to do so.
Talk about playing with fire. Pakistan isn’t Afghanistan. Further major escalations of the American war in that country — flailing responses to ongoing failure — would be asking for trouble of every sort. Ask long enough, and it will come. With that in mind, consider the assessment Andrew Bacevich, author of the bestselling Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, offers of the first nine years of war in Afghanistan (and Pakistan).