Pakistan was not a factor in President Barack Obama's West Point speech laying out his strategy for Afghanistan, except for the briefest of asides: “Our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.” Yet just a week later, the Pakistani front looms as the US forces' coming war arena.
The administration is leaning hard on Islamabad and its president Ali Asif Zardari to get going on a wide range of objectives: Strike Taliban and al-Qaeda bases inside Pakistan and South Waziristan; wind up the South Waziristan offensive and move on to North Waziristan; and shut down the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a goal which has evaded the US-led NATO military for eight years.
The military experts agree that success in Afghanistan is indeed “inextricably linked” to sealing the border against extremist mobility: the influx of Taliban and al Qaeda reinforcements from Pakistan to the Afghan battle zones, and the outflow of Taliban units to safe havens to regroup, rearm, evacuate their wounded and get some rest.
That is not the end of the list of Zardari's to-dos: The Obama administration wants the Pakistani army to go into Baluchistan and smash the headquarters from which Afghanistan's Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and his staff run the war across the border.
Washington is not just asking politely; it is pushing Pakistan's leaders to the wall. Its messages to Zardari (two personal letters from Obama, according to US media), prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, make it clear that US forces will be redoubling their drone-borne missile attacks inside the Pakistani borderlands notwithstanding popular grievances and, moreover, send ground units into Pakistan to hit terrorist targets inside the country, including Baluchistan.
Islamabad is being told to expand its war on Taliban and al Qaeda to all parts of Pakistan, like it or not.
The US president's approval of a 30,000-strong troop surge for Afghanistan have raised the stakes as war costs rise to the mind-boggling sums of $130 billion in 2009 and an estimated $160 billion in 2010.
Black Ops in Pakistan with or without Islamabad's cooperation
DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources note that president Obama's real war policy differs from the strategy outlined in his speech on at least four major points:
1. Washington is not satisfied with the military offensives Pakistan launched this year – first in the Swat Valley then in South Waziristan – but demands proactive assaults to eradicate the Taliban wherever it is found.
US and Pakistani commanders' claims of success in those two campaigns turned out to be unreal. What really happened, according to our military sources, was that the main body of Taliban forces occupying the embattled areas simply withdrew out of harm's way to safer parts of Pakistan without incurring too many losses, then returned to the fray when they were ready. The only real casualties were suffered by the fighters left behind as decoys to cover the main Taliban force's withdrawal.
So the Swat and South Waziristan campaigns achieved little except to help the Taliban expand their war arenas into Pakistan proper.
2. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal fully realize that even if Islamabad is made to expand its counterinsurgency engagement as Washington wants, which is very doubtful, the Pakistani army is not up to tackling the Taliban countrywide. There would be no option but to send US special forces across the border into Pakistan to execute this mission, because the insurgents' freedom of action on both sides of the border can only be curbed by US military cross-border action – with or without an okay from Islamabad.
At first, these covert US operations would be few and limited. But just as the US drone operations against terrorist havens inside Pakistan tribal regions are multiplying as time goes by, so too would American ground intrusions.
A US cross-border offensive: The backlash
The Islamabad government would be under domestic pressure for letting US troops infringe its sovereignty, but the US-led intervention would be sustained without regard to political crises in Islamabad and the bitter resentment stoked up in the Pakistani army – officers and enlisted men alike.
Pakistan's expanded military offensives against the Taliban and al Qaeda would soon evolve into civil war, a backlash made turbulent by the country's patchwork of regional, ethnic, tribal and ethnic divisions, reflected in the Punjabi -dominated armed forces and secessionist movements riddling many regions like poverty-stricken Baluchistan.
3. The US military's deepening involvement in Pakistan would most likely disarrange President Obama's approximate 2011-2013 time frame for scaling down the US military presence in Afghanistan. Withdrawing troops entangled in the two countries would be enormously more complicated that pulling out of one.
On the one hand, turning the heat up in Pakistan would give US and NATO contingents in Afghanistan some relief by forcing Taliban to divide its efforts, men, funds and munitions between the two countries.
On the other, the Taliban may exploit its flight to Pakistan's cities and villages to entrench itself in new havens and jumping-off bases.
Obama pins his hopes of success in Afghanistan on winning the hearts of the population by aid and development. But he will need to tear them away from the indigenous Taliban which holds half of the country in the palm of its hand and believes parts of Pakistan will soon come under its sway. The more conspicuous the US military presence, the faster anti-American sentiment will spread. Already many Pakistani military commanders tend to regard Taliban more as a strategic reserve than an enemy.
So Pakistan, a country bigger than France with a population of 177 million, may be a bigger bite than even America can chew.
4. The fourth element left out of the US president's Afghan equation is India. Its leaders will certainly have something to say about the war moving into Pakistan and approaching its western frontiers.