Geraghty counts this as another star in the great galaxy of broken Obama promises, dating to the convention when he vowed to take out Bin Laden and his underlings “if we have them in our sights.” True?
Five administration officials tell NEWSWEEK that the president has sided with political and diplomatic advisers who argue that widening the scope of the drone attacks would be risky and unwise. Obama is concerned that firing missiles into urban areas like Quetta, where intelligence reports suggest that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and other high-level militants have sometimes taken shelter, would greatly increase the risk of civilian casualties. It would also draw protests from Pakistani politicians and military leaders, who have been largely quiet about the drone attacks as long as they’ve been confined to the country’s out-of-sight border region. The White House has been encouraged by Pakistan’s own recent military efforts to root out militants along the Afghan border, and it does not want to jeopardize that cooperation.
There’s been no final decision yet, Newsweek cautions. I think he would order a strike if we had credible intel on Bin Laden or Zawahiri, civilian casualties and Pakistani backlash be damned, just because the upside of success is huge even relative to the considerable downside of failure. The last thing a first-term president needs is a CIA leak down the road about how he once had a shot at Osama but was too gun-shy to pull the trigger. In the case of Mullah Omar et al., the symbolic importance is less so the calculus changes. Remember, Pakistan’s trying to balance its alliance with the U.S., which it needs to keep India in check, with its alliance with the Taliban, which it needs to assert control in Afghanistan after we’re gone. Anything that throws that balance out of whack — like, say, mass casualties caused by a U.S. air assault on a Pakistani city — will force a readjustment on the other side of the scale, which probably explains why Pakistan’s greeting the American surge across the border by refusing to speed up its own offensive in the tribal areas. It’s all about balance, especially now that Obama’s reminded everyone that we’re eager to vacate the premises. Which leaves The One with two options: Either (1) avoid provocative action like drone strikes on cities that might lead Pakistan to do some “rebalancing” or (2) take really provocative action — namely, by threatening to bring their archenemy into Afghanistan — in order to scare the Pakistanis into rebalancing in our favor.
The problem is, it may be too late for the latter strategy. Pakistan’s greatest strength is its own weakness as a state: We can’t rock the boat too much, the theory goes, or else the secular-ish government will fall and the jihadbots will take full control of their nuclear arsenal. Given the Pakistani supreme court’s ruling today allowing corruption inquiries to proceed against top government officials, the regime is more fragile than ever. Which likely means that not only is a bold Hitchens-esque stroke like tossing India into the mix off the table, but so too is any expansion of the drone program. Exit question: What’s a B+ pragmatist to do?