Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pakistan Peril

It takes a pretty dim understanding of human nature -- not to mention other embarrassing deficiencies -- to suppose that we could get away with intervening militarily in yet another Muslim country (and the one that has nukes, at that).

Washington may be considering other options to achieve its objective in Pakistan - including direct action by US military units operating from across the border with Afghanistan. There are precedents for such a policy, which have been highly controversial in Pakistan, including the use of armed drones to attack selected targets.

Whether or not a tougher United States policy would have an effect, the readiness to adopt it reflects spreading awareness in Washington that the campaign against the al-Qaida movement is simply not working. The new national-intelligence assessment report shows that after nearly six years of the war on terror, a vigorous al-Qaida network may be in a position to plan assaults inside the United States. This is in the face of a massive military operation in Iraq; major commitments in Afghanistan; tens of thousands of detentions; operations in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere; a huge financial commitment; and nearly 30,000 US soldiers and marines killed or injured.

In these circumstances, a serious rethink of policies might be expected. Instead, a further escalation seems more likely (see U.S. Readies Overt Attacks Within Pakistan) - rather like the much-vaunted surge in Iraq, but applied to western Pakistan. There are two pointers in particular to the way the American side of the strategy there might proceed.

The first is the construction of a large US military base at the Ghaki pass, just inside the Afghan border with Pakistan. This is a substantial addition to the two major US facilities elsewhere in Afghanistan - at Kandahar and Bagram - and looks remarkably well situated to conduct operations in Pakistan.

The second is the decision to deploy an entirely new weapons system, an armed drone known as the MQ-9 Reaper. Smaller reconnaissance drones such as the MQ-1 Predator have become major features of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some of these have been equipped with two Hellfire missiles.

The Reaper is on a different scale altogether. For a start, it is four times heavier than a Predator and is the size of a fighter aircraft. Moreover, it is heavily armed and able to carry up to fourteen Hellfire missiles. It has twice the speed of the Predator yet can cruise at much lower speeds, loitering over potential target areas for up to fourteen hours at a time (see Charles J Hanley, "Robot Air Attack Squadron Bound for Iraq", AP, 16 July 2007).

This pilotless aircraft is launched under the control of local crew, but once in the air each drone is operated by two other "crew" based thousands of miles away at Creech air-force base in Nevada, connected by a real-time satellite link. At least nine of the robotic aircraft have already been built by General Atomics; sixty or more are likely to be deployed, initially in Afghanistan in the next few months and in Iraq from 2008.

From a US perspective such automated warfare would have the advantage that US aircrew would not have to overfly Pakistan: they could merely direct the Reapers to hit targets anywhere in western Pakistan from the safety of Nevada.

The exact political impact of such operations in Pakistan is difficult to gauge; but past experience indicates that they would provoke a very strong public reaction, possibly sufficient to destabilize a Pervez Musharraf regime already beset by many other problems. Yet it now looks possible that the Bush administration is prepared to take the risk of losing a leader it still regards as a major ally. The predicament of the war on terror is such that almost anything goes, even the possibility of violent regime change in Pakistan. A fundamental rethink remains out of sight.


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