On the phone with a friend in Islamabad last week, I was full of questions about the Supreme Court, the election for a new Prime Minister, and her evaluation of the current political field in Pakistan. She had one question for me: “Is the US planning to launch attacks in Pakistan to take out the Haqqanis?”
I chuckled a bit when she asked the question. Just a few days earlier I had debunked another rumor about impending US military aggression, and this one seemed even more far fetched.
The next day, however, the Associated Press ran a story about just that: “US considers launching joint US-Afghan raids in Pakistan to hunt down militant groups.” So, was I wrong in dismissing this a bunch of fear-mongering? I don’t think so.
This story has, predictably, proliferated across the Pakistani media. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to be reading as far as the second paragraph of the AP report:
But the idea, which U.S. officials say comes up every couple of months, has been consistently rejected because the White House believes the chance of successfully rooting out the deadly Haqqani network would not be worth the intense diplomatic blowback from Pakistan that inevitably would ensue.
The 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a unique situation. As the celebrity jihadist behind the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden was the holy grail of terrorists and there was no way any US president would have let him get away. Killing bin Laden may have been more symbolic than it was blow to al Qaeda’s organizational capacity, but it was an important symbol for an American public that needed closure.
Unlike Osama bin Laden, it’s likely most Americans have never heard of the Haqqani network. They do, however, represent a strategic problem. The Afghans themselves claim to have evidence that the Pakistan-based Haqqani network is carrying out attacks in Afghanistan.
“Afghan national security forces and coalition military sources acknowledge that this attack bears the signature of the Haqqani network, which continues to target and kill innocent Afghans,” [General John] Allen said.
But any strategic gains from taking out the Haqqani network through cross-border strikes would be more than negated by the costs. US military raids into Pakistan would not only enflame existing anti-American sentiments, they would serve as a recruiting call for jihadist organizations throughout the world. While the Haqqani network presents a nuisance as it exists, an American attack in Pakistan would result in a tsunami of new jihadists crossing the border to carry out attacks against American targets.
And forget any chance of re-opening transit lines through Pakistan, or the type of counterterrorism cooperation that resulted in a key al Qaeda operative being captured by Pakistani security forces earlier this week.
The political costs, too, make any such military action unlikely. To say the American people are war weary would be an understatement. According to Pew’s latest research, 60 percent of Americans favor removing troops as soon as possible. Expanding an unpopular war into a nuclear armed country of 180 million is simply not going to happen in an election year, or any time soon.
The US military – like all militaries – includes unrealistic scenarios in debates about strategies and possible outcomes. Somewhere in the basement of the Pentagon is probably a detailed strategy for taking out France’s nuclear capability. That doesn’t mean it’s ever going to happen.
Leaks about strategic discussions by anonymous American officials are far more likely intended to put pressure on Pakistan’s military leadership than to warn of any impending attack. If there’s one thing that the 2011 raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound taught us, it’s that when the US is going to launch unilateral raids, they’re not going to announce them beforehand. The fact that anonymous reports are appearing all over the media suggests that the US isn’t going to carry out raids inside Pakistan anytime soon.