During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama pledged to deploy more troops to Afghanistan and to take the fight into Pakistan. During the second presidential debate, he said, “if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.”
No one should be surprised that missile strikes have been launched under the new president’s watch. President Obama was unequivocal in his commitment to go after al Qaeda hiding in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But is there a better approach?
Over the past several months, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have stepped up attacks against militant sanctuaries in the vast unpoliced region of western Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Militants use FATA to slip in and out of Afghanistan and attack U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops. Because Pakistan’s Army has proven unable — and at times unwilling — to uproot FATA’s militant safe havens, U.S. policymakers have grown increasingly vocal about the need to exercise greater latitude and eliminate the havens themselves.
Many of the U.S.-led attacks have been conducted with missiles fired from unmanned aerial drones. But after speaking with tribesmen in Peshawar, FATA’s administrative center and the capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, one quickly grasps how the collateral damage unleashed by such heavy-handed measures may be adding more fuel to violent religious extremism in this nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country.
During a recent visit to the frontier region, I spoke with several tribesmen from FATA’s South Waziristan Agency. They recounted how U.S. missile strikes allow the local Taliban to appear to be a force against injustice and exploit popular resentment. While I was in country, the Pakistan Army was launching a string of military operations in FATA’s Bajaur Agency.
In many areas of FATA, relentless Taliban incursions have already led to the complete collapse of civilian and tribal administration. Military strikes appear to be the only viable recourse against the region’s shadowy insurgents. U.S. officials point to the successful killing of top al Qaeda militants such as Abu Laith al-Libi last January and chemical weapons expert Abu Khabab al-Masri in July.
While U.S. and NATO forces have the right to respond to threats on its combat forces based in Afghanistan, policymakers must recognize that the fallout from U.S. missile strikes prove tactically problematic for three reasons. First, missile strikes undermine the authority of sitting Pakistani leaders. The August 19th resignation of former army general Pervez Musharraf demonstrated how the burden of assuming a pro-American stance can prove a political liability for “war on terror” allies. Aligning with pro-U.S. policies is one reason why Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s new president, is reviled by many of his countrymen, while opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who has been openly critical of U.S. actions across the border in Afghanistan, has seen his popularity soar.
A second reason to be skeptical of relying almost exclusively on missile strikes is that they encourage FATA’s militants to lash out against their closer enemy, Pakistan, causing disastrous ripple effects that further damage the already weakened country. Suicide bombers are striking Pakistan’s large urban centers with increasing frequency and are signals of the spreading insurgency engulfing the Islamic Republic.
The final, and most important, reason to be circumspect about escalating military force in the tribal areas is that it will almost certainly fail. The clans, subclans, and extended families that weave the complex fabric of Pashtun tribal society have endured hundreds of years of foreign invasions. Time and again, Persian, Greek, Turk, Mughal, British and Soviet invaders have discovered these peoples to be virtually unconquerable. Pashtun social values include loyalty (wafa), honor (nang), and badal, the Pashto word for taking revenge. Vendettas, personal and collective, have been known to last for generations. While U.S. missile strikes can certainly extinguish high-value targets, they also trigger collective armed action throughout the tribal agencies.
The dilemma for President Obama is that as long as militants continue to infiltrate the hundreds of unguarded checkpoints along the Afghan-Pakistan border, the security environment in Afghanistan will continue to decline. While Obama is correct to argue that we have no choice but to attack militants inside FATA as long as we remain in Afghanistan, a more judicious approach would be to employ low-level “clear and hold” operations along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier in order to limit cross-border movement and respond aggressively to attacks against troops and civilians. Prying Pashtun tribal support away from extremists will require a concerted military and political campaign that looks more like the strategy the U.S. military belatedly used in Iraq’s al Anbar province in late summer 2007. To split Iraqi Sunnis from al Qaeda, U.S. forces employed proven counterinsurgency techniques, such as recruiting indigenous allies, cultivating legitimacy from the local population, and employing minimal use of force. U.S. forces in Afghanistan, working in coordination with Pakistani security forces more familiar with the region’s inhospitable terrain and the cultural and linguistic aspects of tribal society, can offer the U.S.-NATO mission a higher likelihood of succeeding.
Obama’s national security team must understand that the struggle for FATA would best be waged by bolstering Islamabad’s ability to compete with militants for political authority in FATA. If his administration simply increases attacks from pilotless drones, it will only push more wavering tribes further into the Taliban camp.