News reports that senior U.S. commanders in Afghanistan want to expand Special Operations ground raids into Pakistan’s tribal areas may well have been leaked deliberately in order to increase pressure on Pakistani military leaders to take tougher action against Taliban fighters seeking refugee in their country.
However, if American generals genuinely want to increase such raids, then it needs to be stated emphatically that this is not just a lunatic idea, but one that demonstrates how far senior American (and British) commanders have become obsessed with the war in Afghanistan at the expense of the struggle against terrorism as a whole.
Pakistan, with its huge population (around 200 million), large army, nuclear weapons, extensive extremist networks and diaspora in the West, is a far more important country than Afghanistan and presents a vastly greater potential threat of anti-Western terrorism. Moreover, the one thing that would certainly lead to the collapse of the Pakistani state and an immense surge in extremist and terrorist strength would be if the Pakistani Army were to split and parts of it were to mutiny against the alliance with America. U.S. ground raids into Pakistan would risk precisely this disastrous outcome. In fact, after all the talk about the danger of state collapse and Islamist revolution in Pakistan, it would be the U.S. itself that would bring these events about.
Advocates of ground raids seem to think that they are merely an extension of the current campaign of drone attacks on targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which have caused great resentment and have had very doubtful success.
Pakistani officers from captain to lieutenant general have told me that the entry of U.S. ground forces into Pakistan in pursuit of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is by far the most dangerous scenario for both Pakistan-U.S. relations and the unity of the Pakistani Army. As one retired general explained, drone attacks, though ordinary officers and soldiers find them humiliating, are not a critical issue because the Pakistani military cannot do anything about them.
“U.S. ground forces inside Pakistan are a different matter because the soldiers can do something about them,” he said. “They can fight. And if they don’t fight, they will feel utterly humiliated before their wives, mothers, children. It would be a matter of honor, which as you know is a tremendous thing in our society. These men have sworn an oath to defend Pakistani soil. So they would fight. And if the generals told them not to fight, many of them would mutiny, starting with the Frontier Corps.”
The most dangerous moment in my visits to Pakistan since 9/11 came in August and September of 2008, when on two occasions U.S. forces entered Pakistan’s tribal areas to raid suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda bases. On the second occasion, Pakistani soldiers fired in the air to turn the Americans back.
Pakistan is a good deal more resilient than many Western analysts assume, and the capacity of extremists to spread insurgency and revolution (as opposed to terrorism) is still fairly limited. But if the army were to split the state might collapse very quickly. Western fears of such a collapse have focused on the fate of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons; but the breakup of the military would not just risk but ensure that massive conventional armaments (including anti-aircraft missiles) and military expertise would pass to the terrorists.
This would also mean certain defeat for the West in Afghanistan. For what Western reporting has missed is that though Afghan Taliban fighters find shelter in Pakistan, they have not received the kind of active support and aid that the West and Pakistan gave to the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets and their Communist allies in the 1980s. If the West wants to convert shelter into support, U.S. ground raids would be an excellent way to begin.
In their concern with victory in Afghanistan, the U.S. generals are beginning to show signs of a classic error in military strategy, which is to become obsessed with a feature of the battlefield at the expense of the battle as a whole: Napoleon at Waterloo throwing more and more troops into the attempt to storm the Château d’Hougoumont; Hitler making the same mistake at Stalingrad.
They are also forgetting that success against terrorism does not in the end mean killing more Taliban in Afghanistan or Pakistan; it means preventing more attacks in the West. Exchanging dead or captured Taliban commanders in Pakistan’s tribal areas for a vastly increased terrorist threat in the West means exchanging very limited and temporary tactical success for very grave and long-term strategic failure.
Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington and the author of the forthcoming book Pakistan: A Hard Country.