President Obama took office vowing to strike al-Queda forces inside Pakistan if President Zardari’s government failed to ferret out the nations’ terrorists networks. But after ten months of foot dragging by Pakistan’s military, President Obama’s initial threat to respond to “actionable intelligence” has been replaced by an aggressive U.S. counterterrorist war to change the “facts on the ground.” While international attention has focused on the success or failure of America’s troop surge in Afghanistan, the center of gravity of Obama’s AF-PAC strategy has shifted to Pakistan. The tilt to Pakistan has occurred for two reasons. First Osama bin-Ladin and al Queda’s forces in Pakistan still poses the greatest threat to America’s national security. Thus Obama’s goal of “disrupting, dismantling and destroying” al-Queda calls for sustained air and ground attacks on their base of operations in Pakistan. Second, President Obama is pulling American troops out of Afghanistan. To shorten the war he must force the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table; that means significantly degrading the cross border operations and resupply centers of its two major organizations nesting in Pakistan. To that end Obama has intensified Predator drone attacks and expanded America’s Special Forces operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
The dangers inherent in President Obama’s counterterrorist strategy are far reaching. The air strikes and U.S. military forces operating inside Pakistan are inflaming anti-American sentiment, undermining President Zardari’s brittle civilian government and strengthening the recruiting power of Pakistan’s Islamic extremists groups. The September 30 U.S. helicopter attack that killed two Pakistani soldiers mistaken for insurgents is a case in point. Pakistan’s government protested the incident by closing a major border crossing that supply U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan for ten days. Militants then blew up 55 oil tankers stranded at the strategic Khyber Pass. President Obama is keenly aware of the perils of America’s escalation of counterterrorist actions in Pakistan; but his options are limited. He is also running out of time to change the dynamics of the war in Afghanistan and the cancerous spread of Islamic extremism across Pakistan.
Before officially announcing his AF-PAC policy at West Point Academy in December 2009, President Obama had set his counterterrorist campaign in Pakistan in motion on October 7. Obama ordered C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to: increase the number of Predator drones operating in Pakistan; expand the grid where drone attacks would be permitted; open new secret U.S. facilities in Pakistan and embed U.S. military advisors in operational Pakistani units. Since coming to office Obama has tripled the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan compared to President Bush; launching 87 attacks from January 2009 to June 2010 that have claimed over 700 lives. The failed May 1, 2010 New York Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shazad–a Pakistani-born American citizen–prompted Obama to further expand America’s secret war in Pakistan. Although Shazad’s makeshift bomb failed to detonate, the discovery that he was trained by the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) unsettled the White House.
On May 19, Obama dispatched National Security Director James Jones and C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to Pakistan to meet with President Zardari and Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Ashfaq Kayani. The two leaders were told that President Obama would be forced to respond to any future attack on America originating from Pakistan. Although it’s doubtful the United States would implement its current Pakistan “Retribution Plan” that calls for bombing up to 150 known bases of Pakistan’s radical organizations, the message was clear. Zardari and Kayani were also warned that if Pakistan was complicit in any future attacks on India–like the Mumbai massacre–the United States would not be in a position to restrain the Indian government. Jones and Panetta backed up their tough talk with President Obama’s demand that Pakistan engage in full intelligence sharing, provide the United States with its airline passenger lists and expedite visa applications for over 150 American military and intelligence personnel. Still, Zardari and Kayani were non-committal and complained about American encroachments on their sovereignty.
Jones and Panetta left Afghanistan convinced that America needed more boots on the ground in Pakistan. Seeking to limit the exposure of U.S. military personnel in Pakistan, Jones and Panetta moved the Counterterrorism Pursuit Team–a 3000-man paramilitary unit of highly skilled Afghan troops that are paid, trained and controlled by the CIA—across the border into Pakistan. American Predator drones also take off and land at secret facilities inside Pakistan. And the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) now runs a not so covert forward operating base in the port city of Karachi. Recently, Pentagon officials and spokesmen from Blackwater—a private security contracting firm now called “Xe”–have confirmed that Blackwater and its subsidiary Total Intelligence Solutions (T.I.S.) employees are operating in a JSOC secret program inside Pakistan. Blackwater contractors are assisting in conducting targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, “snatch and grabs” of high-value targets and helping to gather intelligence for the Predator drone bombing campaign.
Thus far Obama’s secret wars have concentrated on al-Queda operatives and the Pakistan Taliban TTP (Tehrik e-Taliban). American drone attacks have killed high value al-Queda leaders and Baitullah Mehsud, former leader of the TTP. The recent buildup of U.S. clandestine forces in Pakistan aims to increasingly target the two major Afghan Taliban groups (Haqqani forces in North Waziristan and Mulla Omar’s Quetta Shura in Balochistan) while for the moment ignoring Gulbuddin Hetmayar’s Hizb–i-Islami group based outside of Peshawar. The U.S. wants to disrupt the cross-border movement of Taliban forces, supplies and narcotics smuggling operations that have financially sustained their strongholds in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces. At the same time, by July 2011 President Obama hopes that U.S.-NATO forces will have gained control of larger swaths of Kandahar and Helmand provinces where most of the fighting is occurring in Afghanistan. Obama’s goal is not to destroy the Haqqani and Quetta Shura safe havens or kill their leaders. Instead he wants to significantly degrade their organizations enough to force them to stay at the negotiating table with President Karzai. Over the past month President Karzai has been holding talks with representatives of the Haqanni network and the Quetta Shura. Indeed, their safe passage to travel to Kabul from Pakistan has been guaranteed by the U.S. military.
Finally, two things can be said about President Obama’s escalation of the counterterrorist war in Pakistan. The attacks against al-Queda and Pakistan’s indigenous Islamic extremists groups are strategic and will continue as long as Islamabad’s government and military permits them to occur. However, the buildup of U.S. Special Forces and covert operations to disrupt the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan is more tactical in nature. It is a key element in President Obama’s strategy to accelerate the process of reaching a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan and withdraw American troops. Nevertheless the risks to Pakistan and the region are enormous. The possibility that America’s secret war in Pakistan could trigger a chain of events that lead to the fall of President Zardari’s weak government, the outbreak of civil war, renewed conflict with India or most likely a military coup cannot be dismissed. One thing is certain; the contingency plans developed by the U.S. military to prevent Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from falling into the hands of Islamic radicals won’t be far from President Obama’s desk.