The Pakistanization of the Afghan War
by Charles Lemos, Tue May 12, 2009 at 10:51:01 PM EDT
The Los Angeles Times is reporting in a marked shift for US policy towards Pakistan that the US military has begun flying armed Predator drones inside Pakistan in partnership with the Pakistani military. Furthermore, under this new joint operation Pakistani officers have significant control over targets, flight routes and decisions to launch attacks.
For the U.S. military, the missions represent a broad new role in searching for Islamic militants in Pakistan. For years, that task has been the domain of the CIA, which has flown its own fleet of Predators over the South Asian nation.
Under the new partnership, U.S. military drones will be allowed for the first time to venture beyond the borders of Afghanistan under the direction of Pakistani military officials, who are working with American counterparts at a command center in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said the program was aimed at getting Pakistan -- which has frequently protested airstrikes in its territory as a violation of sovereignty -- more directly and deeply engaged in the Predator program.
"This is about building trust," said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the program has not been publicly acknowledged. "This is about giving them capabilities they do not currently have to help them defeat this radical extreme element that is in their country."
The Pakistanis, however, have yet to use the drones to shoot at suspected militants and are grappling with a cumbersome military chain of command as well as ambivalence over using U.S. equipment to fire on their own people.
The program marks a significant departure from how the war against Taliban insurgents has been fought for most of the last seven years. The heavy U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has been largely powerless to pursue militants who routinely escape across the border into Pakistan.
But the initiative carries serious risks for Pakistan, which is struggling to balance a desire for more control over the drones with a deep reluctance to become complicit in U.S.-operated Predator strikes on its own people.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, on a visit to Washington last week, reiterated his nation's request for its own fleet of Predators. U.S. officials have all but ruled that out, and they described the new, jointly operated flights as an effective compromise.
According to the article, two missions under Pakistani direction have so far been flown but that so far no missiles have been fired causing consternation among American military planners that the drones are not being used more aggressively by the Pakistanis. That should change one way or the other for Army Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, named this week as the new top US commander in Afghanistan, expanded the use of Predators while in Iraq and is expected to do the same in his new post.
In the frontier areas, it has been the CIA heretofore who was directing the strikes. The most recent CIA strike came Tuesday, reportedly killing eight people in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Since August when the Bush Administration decided to increase the use of predator drones to target Al Qaeda operatives, the CIA has carried out at least 55 strikes, compared with 10 reported attacks in 2006 and 2007 combined. President Obama expanded the use both in number and included for the first time elements of the Pakistan Taliban as targets shortly after taking office.
The Pakistanization of the Afghan War seems all but complete. It seems we are now fighting Pakistan's war or perhaps they are fighting ours. Either way, the end results are the same. There is a mission creep and what is eerie is how little this is noticed. Somehow we remain fixated on Afghanistan even as a wider war is quickly gathering steam. Take Senator James Risch, Republican of Idaho, who painted a grim picture today at a hearing with Ambassador Holbrooke, saying he was stunned by a lack of progress in Afghanistan, which he called a "black hole" with no bottom. If that's Afghanistan, what's Pakistan?