The Pakistan Predicament

Recently, the CIA has intensified its air campaign against Al Qaeda elements in the tribal regions of Pakistan.  The agency uses pilot-less drones to fire missiles at suspected militants in the area.   American officials say the strikes have killed a large number of Al Qaeda members. 


Last week, new CIA Director Leon Panetta said that such operations are the “most effective weapon” the US has in the fight against Al Qaeda leaders.  He went on to say that “It is for that reason that the president and the vice president and everyone else supports continuing the effort.” 


Unfortunately, what Panetta said is probably true with regard to the airstrikes being the best means available to the US when it comes to attacking militants in the border areas of Pakistan.  Thus far, the Pakistani government and security forces have been unable or unwilling to seriously take on Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives in their country.  The high level of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, the disinclination of the Pakistani army to engage in counterinsurgency missions, heightened tensions with India, and the tenuous nature of the new government in Islamabad make it unlikely that that situation will change anytime in the near future.   The US could send ground forces into Pakistan but that is highly problematic for several reasons.  One is that invading another Muslim country could motivate more Muslims to become jihadists.  A second is that the US could end up fighting the Pakistani army instead of the militants.  A third is that the invasion could further destabilize Pakistan and lead to the overthrow of the government and the rise of an extremist, anti-American regime.


The airstrike campaign is not without its downsides though.  The missiles launches have led to civilian casualties, which naturally angers the populace of the tribal regions and puts pressure on the Pakistani government to try to put a halt to the attacks.  The unintended, but almost inevitable, killing of civilians could also help Al Qaeda and the Taliban recruit new operatives who want to fight Americans.  There is also the potential, however slight, that the airstrikes could lead to the political destabilization and regime change scenario mentioned above with regard to the perils of a ground campaign.


 The US is essentially faced with three options: refrain from attacking targets inside Pakistan and enable Al Qaeda and the Taliban to have complete sanctuary in the northwest provinces; send large numbers of troops into the area to hunt down militants; or continue the air campaign.  The latter is probably the least bad option because it allows the US to go after Al Qaeda without taking a highly risky action like invading Pakistan, and it appears that the Obama administration will continue to pursue that course of action. 


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