Friend or foe? It's difficult to tell a difference when it comes to Pakistan's tribal militants, whom Pakistan, the American military, the Taliban and al-Qaeda all alternately court and battle with. (John Moore/Getty Images)
When Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional committee last moth that "we can't kill our way to victory" in Afghanistan, he was cautioning politicians in Washington about two realities on the ground in Afghanistan: Firepower alone doesn't work. And what firepower the United States and NATO had unleashed in recent months, especially in air raids, was backfiring. Civilians have been killed by western forces in almost as many numbers as by Taliban forces. NATO and the United States are losing face in Afghanistan, which is one of the reasons the country is again on the verge of being lost.
As Rory Stewart wrote in Time last summer, "Western troops can win any conventional battle against ill-armed extremists, but both history and the latest doctrine on counterinsurgency suggest that ultimate victory will require control of Afghanistan's borders, hundreds of thousands of troops and a much stronger and more legitimate Afghan state, which could take Afghans decades to build. The West does not have the resources to match our ambitions in counterinsurgency, and we never will."
Mullen might as well have been reading the same script: "We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan, as I watched us do during a day-long trip to the Korengal Valley in July," he told the congressional panel. "But until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming."
Mulled did "work more closely" with the Pakistani government, which is to say that in August he and other Pentagon brass summoned Pakistan's army chief of staff to let him know that the Americans would take the initiative in Pakistan's tribal areas and chase militants there if necessary. Not just bomb them from the air. It was dangerous new twist in an old war.
Here's what was strange about that. In Afghanistan, American forces were realizing, albeit too slowly for the civilians they'd killed, that air raids don't win hearts and mind, nor do they produce too many successful kills or captures of enemy combatants. Yet here was the American military command telling the Pakistani command that it would apply the very same failed tactic... in Pakistan.
So it did. The United States staged several raids inside the tribal areas. Pakistanis were none too pleased by the carnage, and the raids proved almost worthless, militarily. Today the Times reported that "The White House has backed away from using American commandos for further ground raids into Pakistan after furious complaints from its government, relying instead on an intensifying campaign of airstrikes by the Central Intelligence Agency against militants in the Pakistani mountains."
No sooner was that reported than the CIA proved it by launching missile strikes by drones: "An American drone aircraft hit a militant compound in South Waziristan on Sunday night, killing 20 people, including two important local Taliban commanders known for their attacks against American soldiers in Afghanistan, a senior government official and a local resident said Monday."
Success? Pakistan is a sovereign state with nuclear weapons, a restless, largely anti-American population and an acid undercurrent of militant Islamism all too willing to stoke belligerence to its ends.
The problem isn't that the United States is now willing to attack targets in Pakistan. It should, if those targets are, in fact, Taliban or al-Qaeda insurgents using the tribal areas to hide and stage their own raids into Afghanistan, or worse--stage their destabilization of Pakistan. The problem is that both the United States and Pakistan are going about it the worst way possible--stealthily, underhandedly, deceptively, instead of engaging the Pakistani public politically and winning that battle for hearts and minds first. Going about it this way is only inviting repercussions neither the Pakistani political establishment nor the American military will be able to control.
It doesn't have to be this way. But once again American strategy gives way to overpowering tactics that have little to nothing to do with winning a war so much as scoring a hit.