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An October Surprise in Pakistan?

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This morning, the Associated Press is reporting what is now an almost regular occurrence:

Pakistani troops and tribesmen opened fire on two U.S. helicopters that crossed into the country from neighboring Afghanistan, intelligence officials said Monday.

Pakistan was touted by Secretary of State Colin Powell as America’s most important non-NATO ally. Both Vice President Cheney and President Bush are reported to have taken a close personal interest in Pakistani relations. But a source with insight into the Department of Defense told me that relations with Pakistan have grown increasingly worrisome. Last Tuesday, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a surprise visit to Islamabad for urgent consultations with the Pakistani government and military. There is no doubt that this urgent meeting was related to incidents earlier in the week in which Pakistani units fired on American helicopters.

What’s up? There is one plausible explanation for the latest friction: the Bush Administration has given orders to go all out–helicopter gunships, air strikes, predator drones, and ground-based forces–through the end of the year in an attempt to apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda leaders. Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri have long been understood to be operating in a zone consisting of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Northwest Pakistan and the immediately adjacent areas of Afghanistan—precisely where these incidents have occurred.

The reaction of most Americans to this news will be: It’s about time. But why the conflict with Islamabad? It is obvious that the American exercises have been undertaken without coordinating with Pakistan’s authorities. Pakistan has refused to issue a blank check to the United States to conduct military operations on its territory–understandable because if it were to act otherwise, the Pakistani government would effectively be surrendering a key aspect of its sovereignty to a foreign power. Pakistan has in the past permitted such operations, but they want to know about them in advance and approve them.

The United States, however, is justifiably concerned about the confidentiality of any information passed to Pakistani armed forces about its operations in pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in FATA. Experience has shown that the targets are regularly tipped off about the operation. Moreover, as Ahmed Rashid and others have demonstrated, Pakistan’s Interservice Intelligence is heavily invested with the Taliban and Al Qaeda and simply can’t be counted upon. So the United States has good reason to refuse to give prior notice to the Pakistani authorities.

Two other points. First is the obvious proximity of the U.S. elections. The Bush Administration is hoping for an “October surprise” that will lift the tides of the Republican candidates just in time for Election Day. That explains why the extraordinary effort is undertaken now, and why the sensitivities of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship are being ignored. The second is a study in contrasts. For seven years, the Bush Administration told us that it exercised extraordinary restraint in undertaking just the sort of campaign that is evidently now underway. Why? Because it feared for the survival of Pakistani’s military strongman, Pervez Musharraf. Now Musharraf is gone, replaced by a democratically elected government which is both closer to the United States and committed (unlike Musharraf) to dealing a blow to the Taliban/Al Qaeda forces operating in the nation’s western border area. However, in the Bush playbook, a friendly democratically elected government is not entitled to the sort of deference that is owed to a military dictator who has a personal rapport with Bush. This is extremely revealing of the extraordinary personal dimensions of the Bush foreign policy calculus. The editors of the New York Times this morning make the fairly obvious argument that while renewed zeal in pursuit of terrorist adversaries on Pakistani soil is welcome, the United States also has a long-term interest in building a stable, democratic Pakistan which will not offer such terrorists a safe harbor. The Bush Administration has a knack for looking for quick fixes for partisan advantage while ignoring the long-term security interests of the country. In Pakistan we see another demonstration of this phenomenon.

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