Hot debate as Obama's war drones on
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The argument for deeper United States military commitment to the
Afghan war invoked by President Barack Obama in his first major policy
statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday - that al-Qaeda must be denied
a safe haven in Afghanistan - has not been subjected to public debate in
A few influential strategists in Washington have been arguing, however, that
this official rationale misstates the al-Qaeda problem and ignores the serious
risk that an escalating US war poses to Pakistan.
Those strategists doubt that al-Qaeda would seek to move into Afghanistan as
long as they are ensconced in Pakistan and argue
that escalating US Predator drone airstrikes or special operations raids on
Taliban targets in Pakistan will actually strengthen radical jihadi groups in
the country and weaken the Pakistani government's ability to resist them.
The first military strategist to go on record with such a dissenting view on
Afghanistan and Pakistan was Colonel T X Hammes, a retired US Marine Corps
officer and author of the 2004 book The Sling and the Stone, which
argued that the US military faces a new type of warfare which it would continue
to lose if it did not radically re-orient its thinking. He became more widely
known as one of the first military officers to call, in September 2006, for
defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation over failures in Iraq.
Hammes dissected the rationale for the US military presence in Afghanistan in
an article last September on the website of the "Small Wars Journal", which
specializes in counter-insurgency issues. He questioned the argument that
Afghanistan had to be stabilized to deny al-Qaeda a terrorist base there,
because, "Unfortunately, al-Qaeda has moved its forces and its bases into
Hammes suggested that the Afghan war might actually undermine the tenuous
stability of a Pakistani regime, thus making the al-Qaeda threat far more
serious. He complained that "neither candidate has even commented on how our
actions [in Afghanistan] may be feeding Pakistan's instability".
Hammes, who has since joined the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Pentagon
contractor, declined to comment on the Obama administration's rationale for the
Afghan war for this article.
Kenneth Pollack, the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East
Policy of the Brookings Institution, has also expressed doubt about the
official argument for escalation in Afghanistan. Pollack's 2002 book, The
Threatening Storm, was important in persuading opinion-makers in
Washington to support the George W Bush administration's use of US military
force against the Saddam Hussein regime, and he remains an enthusiastic
supporter of the US military presence in Iraq.
But at a Brookings forum on December 16, Pollack expressed serious doubts about
the strategic rationale for committing the US military to Afghanistan.
Contrasting the case for war in Afghanistan with the one for war in Iraq in
2003, he said it is "much harder to see the tie between Afghanistan and our
Like Hammes, Pollack argued that it is Pakistan, where al-Qaeda's leadership
has flourished since being ejected from Afghanistan, which could clearly affect
those vital interests. And additional US troops in Afghanistan, Pollack pointed
out, "are not going to solve the problems of Pakistan".
Responding to a question about the possibility of US attacks against Taliban
sanctuaries in Pakistan paralleling the US efforts during the Vietnam War to
clean out the communist "sanctuaries" in Cambodia, Pollack expressed concern
about that possibility. "The more we put the troops into Afghanistan," said
Pollack, "the more we are tempted to mount cross-border operations into
Pakistan, exactly as we did in Vietnam."
Pollack cast doubt on the use of either drone bombing attacks or special
operations commando raids into Pakistan as an approach to dealing with the
Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. "The only way to do it is to mount a
full-scale counter-insurgency campaign," said Pollack, "which seems unlikely in
the case of Pakistan."
The concern raised by Hammes and Pollack about the war in Afghanistan spilling
over into Pakistan dovetails with concerns in the US intelligence community
about the effect on Pakistan of commando raids by special operations forces
based in Afghanistan against targets inside Pakistan.
In mid-August 2008, the National Intelligence Council presented to the White
House the consensus view of the intelligence community that such special forces
raids, which were then under consideration, could threaten the unity of the
Pakistani military if continued long enough.
Despite that warning, a commando raid was carried out on a target in South
Waziristan on September 3, reportedly killing as many as 20 people, mostly
apparently civilians. A Pentagon official told Army Times reporter Sean D
Naylor that the raid was in response to cross-border activities by Taliban
allies with the complicity of the Pakistani military's Frontier Corps.
Although that raid was supposed to be the beginning of a longer campaign, it
was halted because of the virulence of the political backlash in Pakistan that
followed, according to Naylor's September 29 report. The raid represented "a
strategic miscalculation", one US official told Naylor. "We did not fully
appreciate the vehemence of the Pakistani response."
The Pakistani military sent a strong message to Washington by demonstrating
that they were willing to close down US supply routes through the Khyber Pass
and by talking about shooting at US helicopters.
The commando raids were put on hold for the time being, but the issue of
resuming them was part of the Obama administration's policy review. That aspect
of the review has not been revealed.
Meanwhile, airstrikes by drone aircraft in Pakistan have sharply increased in
recent months, increasingly targeting Pashtun allies of the Taliban.
Last week, apparently anticipating one result of the policy review, the New
York Times reported Obama and his national security advisers were considering
expanding the strikes by drone aircraft from the tribal areas of northwest
Pakistan to Quetta, Balochistan, where top Taliban leaders are known to be
But Daniel Byman, a former US Central Intelligence Agency analyst and
counter-terrorism policy specialist at Georgetown University, who has been
research director on the Middle East at the RAND corporation, told the Times
that, if drone attacks were expanded as is now being contemplated, al-Qaeda and
other jihadi organizations might move "farther and farther into Pakistan, into
Byman believes that would risk "weakening the government we want to bolster",
which he says is "already to some degree a house of cards". The Times report
suggested that some officials in the administration agree with Byman's
The drone strikes are admitted by US officials to be so unpopular with the
Pakistani public that no Pakistani government can afford to appear to tolerate
them, the Times reported.
But such dissenting views as those voiced by Hammes, Pollack and Byman are
unknown on Capitol Hill. At a hearing on Afghanistan before a subcommittee of
the House Government Operations Committee last Thursday, the four witnesses
were all enthusiastic supporters of escalation, and the argument that US troops
must fight to prevent al-Qaeda from getting a new sanctuary in Afghanistan
never even came up for discussion.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.