Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.
Apparently I underestimated the U.S. government’s capacity for crazy.
Last week, I said:
The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim. The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.
In the days after my attribution of a modicum of good sense and humanitarian concern to the U.S. government, the Telegraph reported that the U.S. is threatening to launch drone attacks against suspected Taliban targets in Quetta. The story labels this potential move a “major escalation,” and they’re not kidding.
[L]ast week Anne Patterson, America’s ambassador to Islamabad, told the Daily Telegraph that the offensive in Swat was not targeting the insurgents posing the greatest danger to Nato forces in Afghanistan.An official at the Pakistani interior ministry told the Daily Telegraph: “The Americans said we have been raising this issue with you time and again. These elements are attacking Nato forces in southern Afghanistan, especially in Helmand. The Americans said ‘If you don’t take action, we will.'”
US unmanned drone strikes have so far been confined to Pakistan’s federally administrated tribal border regions where Islamabad holds little sway. But attacks in or around Quetta, in Baluchistan, would strike deep into the Pakistan government’s territory and are likely to cause a huge outcry in the country.
This is crazy town, people. An attack on Quetta would cause a phase shift in Pakistan. We’re talking destabilization par excellence. A recent poll by Gallup Pakistan showed that the Pakistanis view the U.S. as the biggest threat to their country, far surpassing India and the Taliban:
When respondents were asked what they consider to be the biggest threat to the nation of Pakistan, 11 per cent of the population identified the Taliban fighters, who have been blamed for scores of deadly bomb attacks across the country in recent years.
Another 18 per cent said that they believe that the greatest threat came from neighbouring India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan since partition in 1947.
But an overwhelming number, 59 per cent of respondents, said the greatest threat to Pakistan right now is, in fact, the US…
That kind of visceral reaction to the United States comes, in large part, from a popular rejection of U.S. drone activity over Pakistan. From a May op-ed in the NYT by Kilcullen and Exum:
[T]he drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians…the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation’s two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability.
An airstrike open-season over Quetta would be the apotheosis of stupid. It would cause public opinion in Pakistan regarding the U.S. to metastasize further while increasing sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Pakistani civilian government, already pushed by public outrage into publicly distancing themselves from the drone policy and assuring their populace that it would end soon, would look impotent and consent to their governance could become brittle. In short, we’d succeed in taking on the role we’ve attributed to the Taliban–the destabilizer of a nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In addition to lighting the fuse on the instability mentioned above, there’s the moral repugnance of firing ordinance into such a densely populated area. From a March NYT story on the same topic:
Missile strikes or American commando raids in the city of Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps around the city and near the Afghan border would carry high risks of civilian casualties, American officials acknowledge.
Drone operators executing strikes in Pakistan tend to rely on spotters on the ground placing infrared beacons near suspected Taliban targets. (Otherwise, the drone operators are firing on people that appear to be moving dots on the ground, indistinguishable from non-combatants.) Those beacons are often placed by paid informants who have financial incentives to place as many of them as possible, meaning there’s no guarantee the missiles will hit actual Taliban. Thus, the drone strikes have killed massive numbers of civilians and relatively few suspected Taliban or other combatants. But, even if you’re fine with the potential for non-combatant deaths, you still need some functional intel coming in to guide the strikes if the purpose is to kill Mullah Omar and/or Bin Laden.
The Telegraph’s story seems to make clear that we either lack actionable intelligence, or we lack confidence that the Pakistanis wouldn’t tip off the targets and allow them to escape:
Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said the US had so far been unable to provide detailed intelligence to target the Quetta Shura. He said: “We need real-time intelligence. The Americans have never told us any location.”
The lack of trust and/or usable intelligence leads the U.S. to consider even worse ideas, like sending U.S. commandos into Quetta:
Western intelligence officers say Pakistan has been moving Taliban leaders to the volatile city of Karachi, where it would be impossible to strike. US officials have even discussed sending commandos to Quetta to capture or kill the Taliban chiefs before they are moved.
As Joshua Foust noted back in 2008, if we take this belligerent stance of, “Do it or by God we’ll do it,” and then we follow through with boots on the ground or missiles from the air without the authorization of the Pakistani government, it’d be tantamount to a declaration of war on Pakistan.