The George W. Bush administration's decision to
launch commando raids and step up missiles strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda
figures in the tribal areas of Pakistan followed what appears to have been the
most contentious policy process over the use of force in Bush's eight-year presidency.
That decision has stirred such strong opposition from the Pakistani military
and government that it is now being revisited. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Pakistan Tuesday for the second time in
three weeks, and US officials and sources just told Reuters that any future
raids would be approved on a mission-by-mission basis by a top US administration
The policy was the result of strong pressure from the US command in Afghanistan
and lobbying by the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the CIA's operations
directorate (DO), both of which had direct institutional interests in operations
that coincided with their mandate.
State Department and some Pentagon officials had managed to delay the proposed
military escalation in Pakistan for a year by arguing that it would be based
on nearly nonexistent intelligence and would only increase support for the Islamic
extremists in that country.
But officials of SOCOM and the CIA prevailed in the end, apparently because
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney believed they could not afford to be seen
as doing nothing about bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the administration's final
SOCOM had a strong institutional interest in a major new operation in Pakistan.
The Army's Delta Force and Navy SEALS had been allowed by the Pakistani military
to accompany its forces on raids in the tribal area in 2002 and 2003 but not
to operate on their own. And even that extremely limited role was ended by Pakistani
President Pervez Musharraf in 2003, which frustrated SOCOM officials.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose antagonism toward the CIA was legendary,
had wanted SOCOM to take over the hunt for bin Laden. And in 2006, SOCOM's Joint
Special Operations Command branch in Afghanistan pressed Rumsfeld to approve
a commando operation in Pakistan aimed at capturing a high-ranking al-Qaeda
SOCOM had the support of the US command in Afghanistan, which was arguing
that the war in Afghanistan could not be won as long as the Taliban had a safe
haven in Pakistan from which to launch attacks. The top US commander, Lt.
Gen. Karl Eikenberry, worked with SOCOM and DO officers in Afghanistan to assemble
the evidence of Pakistan's cooperation with the Taliban. .
Despite concerns that such an operation could cause a massive reaction in Pakistan
against the US war on al-Qaeda, Rumsfeld gave in to the pressure in early November
2006 and approved the operation, according to an account in the New York
Times Jun. 30. But within days, Rumsfeld was out as defense secretary, and
the operation was put on hold.
Nevertheless Bush and Cheney, who had been repeating that Musharraf had things
under control in the frontier area, soon realized that they would be politically
vulnerable to charges that they weren't doing anything about bin Laden.
The July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was the signal for the CIA's
DO to step up its own lobbying for control over a Pakistan operation, based
on the Afghan model CIA officers training and arming a local militia while
identifying targets for strikes from the air.
In a Washington Post column only two weeks after the NIE's conclusions were
made public, David Ignatius quoted former CIA official Hank Crumpton, who had
run the CIA operation in Afghanistan after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, on the
proposed DO operation: "We either do it now, or we do it after the next
That either-or logic and the sense of political vulnerability in the White
House was the key advantage of the advocates of a new war in Pakistan. Last
November, the New York Times reported that the Defense Department had drafted
an order based on the SOCOM proposal for training of local tribal forces and
for new authority for "covert" commando operations in Pakistan's frontier
But the previous experience with missile strikes against al-Qaeda targets using
predator drones and the facts on the ground provided plenty of ammunition to
those who opposed the escalation. It showed that the proposed actions would
have little or no impact on either the Taliban or al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and
would bring destabilizing political blowback.
In January 2006, the CIA had launched a missile strike on a residential compound
in Damadola, near the Afghan border, on the basis of erroneous intelligence
that Ayman al-Zawahiri would be there. The destruction killed as many 25 people,
according to local residents interviewed by The Telegraph, including 14 members
of one family.
Some 8,000 tribesmen in the Damadola area protested the killing, and in Karachi
tens of thousands more rallied against the United States, shouting "Death
Musharraf later claimed that the dead included four high-ranking al-Qaeda officials,
including al-Zawahiri's son-in-law. The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock
reported last week, however, that US and Pakistani officials now admit that
only local villagers were killed in the strike.
It was well known within the counterterrorism community that the US search
for al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan was severely limited by the absence of actionable
intelligence. For years, the US military had depended almost entirely on Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, despite its well-established ties with
the Taliban and even al-Qaeda.
One of the counterterrorism officials without a direct organizational stake
in the issue, State Department counterterrorism chief Gen. Dell L. Dailey, bluntly
summed up the situation to reporters last January. "We don't have enough
information about what's going on there," he said. "Not on al-Qaeda,
not on foreign fighters, not on the Taliban."
A senior US official quoted by the Post last February was even more scathing
on that subject, saying "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then."
Meanwhile, the Pakistani military, reacting to the US aim of a more aggressive
US military role in the tribal areas, repeatedly rejected the US military
proposal for training Frontier Corps units.
The US command in Afghanistan and SOCOM increased the pressure for escalation
early last summer by enlisting visiting members of Congress in support of the
plan. Texas Republican Congressmen Michael McCaul, who had visited Afghanistan
and Pakistan, declared on his return that was "imperative that US forces
be allowed to pursue the Taliban and al-Qaeda in tribal areas inside Pakistan."
In late July, according to the Times of London, Bush signed a secret
national security presidential directive (NSPD) which authorized operations
by special operations forces without the permission of Pakistan.
The Bush decision ignored the disconnect between the aims of the new war and
the realities on the ground in Pakistan. Commando raids and missile strikes
against mid-level or low-level Taliban or al-Qaeda operatives, carried out in
a sea of angry Pashtuns, will not stem the flow of fighters from Pakistan into
Afghanistan or weaken al-Qaeda. But they will certainly provoke reactions from
the tribal population that can tilt the affected areas even further toward the
At least some military leaders without an institutional interest in the outcome
understood that the proposed escalation was likely to backfire. One senior military
officer told the Los Angeles Times last month that he had been forced
by the "fragility of the current government in Islamabad," to ask
whether "you do more long-term harm if you act very, very aggressively