Joe Biden told the nation we’d be “totally out” of Afghanistan in less than three years, which doesn’t give much time to smash the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak theater. The New York Times reports that “senior American military commanders” in Afghanistan want a wider theater for ground operations that includes the rugged terrain across the Pakistan border in order to stamp out the bases used by the Taliban to gather their strength. The news will make it more difficult for Pakistan to turn a blind eye to these operations as they have in the past, however:
Senior American military commanders inAfghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas, a risky strategy reflecting the growing frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to root out militants there.
The proposal, described by American officials in Washington and Afghanistan, would escalate military activities inside Pakistan, where the movement of American forces has been largely prohibited because of fears of provoking a backlash.
The plan has not yet been approved, but military and political leaders say a renewed sense of urgency has taken hold, as the deadline approaches for the Obama administration to begin withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan. Even with the risks, military commanders say that using American Special Operations troops could bring an intelligence windfall, if militants were captured, brought back across the border into Afghanistan and interrogated.
The Americans are known to have made no more than a handful of forays across the border into Pakistan, in operations that have infuriated Pakistani officials. Now, American military officers appear confident that a shift in policy could allow for more routine incursions.
The expansion of the theater is welcome news, if the Pakistanis go along with it. We have necessarily been fighting the Taliban with one hand tied behind our back, thanks to the free zone the Taliban enjoy in the Waziristans and Northwest Frontier Province. That is an unfortunate accident of political geography trumping tribal patterns in the region; the Pashtuns consider the entire area their territory, while at least until now the Pakistanis have insisted that the US respect their sovereignty. They carefully ignore the Predator drone attacks, occasionally registering a protest over the collateral deaths they cause, but have so far been content enough to allow Barack Obama to order an increasing level of sorties.
That may not be the case for American troop incursions in strength, however. The Pakistani government has enough trouble with radicals as it is. The military pressure on the frontier provinces might help the Pakistani tactically by destroying the strength of the armed radicals, but it could also generate huge amounts of anger over foreign military incursions that could create a recruitment bonanza. It could also backfire by pushing the radicals out of the mountainous frontiers and closer to the centers of power in Pakistan, with the democratic government a tempting target.
It may not be too popular here, either. Such a decision would amount to a large escalation in the war, and one likely not matched in personnel after the political heat Obama took for his surge deployment last year. Biden has been promising a return of all troops in three years, but such a fight would almost certainly take more time and materiel to achieve than could be transported in and out in that period of time. While it might generate some bounce in support among those who are starting to waver after years of backing the effort in Afghanistan, it will also mean a hardening of opposition to it as well, and a tough two years.
Finally, this could be a bluff — and perhaps a reason why the new proposal has hit the NYT. It could be seen as a warning to the Pashtuns to end its support of the Taliban leadership and come back to the table with the Karzai government. The leak of this strategy could be a warning that the US isn’t thinking of retreating from the fight at all, but may soon rob them of any safe ground in the region. If so, let’s hope it works.