WASHINGTON - This week's leak to the New York Times of a proposal for U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids against Afghan insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan may be intended to put more pressure on the Pakistani military to take action against those sanctuaries.
But the proposal for such cross-border raids also reflects a real demand from the U.S.-NATO command in Afghanistan to target insurgent leaders inside Pakistan if the Pakistani military does not respond to the threat, according to a U.S. source familiar with discussions at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul.
And the position of the Barack Obama administration on the necessity of attacking insurgent safe havens in Pakistan appears to be in line with the proposal for cross-border raids.
Carrying out such raids would probably provoke a new level of anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan, with dangerous political consequences in that country, according to experts on Pakistan, but the behavior of the national security organs of the United States in the recent past suggests that such dangers are being rationalized.
The New York Times reported Monday that "senior American military commanders" - meaning Gen. David Petraeus and his subordinates at ISAF - are pushing for raids into Pakistan aimed at capturing Taliban commanders and taking them back to Afghanistan for interrogation.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the primary spokesman for ISAF, issued a statement saying, "There is absolutely no truth to reporting in The New York Times that U.S. forces are planning to conduct ground operations into Pakistan."
That did not amount to a real denial of the Times story, however. The story did not say that U.S. forces were "planning to conduct" such raids. In fact, it made clear that Obama had not yet made any decision on the proposal.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and a leading authority on the Pakistani military, sees the leak of the proposal for more cross-border raids as a form of "psychological warfare" aimed at getting the Pakistani military leadership to take action against the Haqqani network sanctuaries in Northern Waziristan.
Nawaz told IPS, however, that the timing for such an impact is off, because the Pakistani military could not launch any new offensive there until next February in any case, because of the weather. Furthermore, it still lacks the helicopters necessary for such operations, he said.
The proposed U.S. cross-border operations are "a perfect recipe for ruining even this bad relationship", said Nawaz. They would "disrupt the whole enterprise in Pakistan, including the civilian government". Political opponents of the existing government would be "screaming for blood", he added, and the military would feel that it had to act against the government.
The U.S. National Intelligence Council warned the George W. Bush White House in August 2008 that SOF raids across the border in Pakistan would threaten the unity of the Pakistani military. A disproportionate percentage of army officers serving in the largely Pashtun tribal areas are Pashtun, the Council observed, and if U.S. commando raids continued beyond a few months, it could provoke large-scale defections from the Pakistani army to the militants.
The intelligence warning came only after Bush had approved a request from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for more latitude in carrying out raids against al Qaeda and Afghan insurgent targets in Pakistan's tribal area.
The first raid in early September 2008 killed six children, two women and at least 10 innocent villagers who came out of their houses to see what was happening. When the Pakistani government and military responded angrily and threatened to disrupt cooperation with Washington, the raids were terminated.
The policy being pursued by the Obama administration, however, tends to insulate it from such warnings of potentially disastrous consequences of an aggressive U.S. military role in Pakistan. The administration increased the number of CIA drone strikes in northwest Pakistan over that of the Bush administration - a policy requiring that it discount the political fallout of the drone campaign in Pakistan.
The CIA has also set up "fusion centers" with the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, aimed at making the Pakistani military more dependent on U.S. intelligence and less likely to be responsive to public opposition to U.S. military activities in Pakistan.
The idea of sending SOF units into Pakistan to try to capture insurgent leaders was first discussed last spring, when Gen. Stanley McChrystal was still top commander of U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan, according to a U.S. source familiar with the discussions about the issue in Kabul.
A number of Delta Force troops in Pakistan were already operating covertly in the northwest tribal region, according to the source, and the CIA's secret Afghan militia units, the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, were also being sent into Pakistan's tribal area to target Taliban and Haqqani network insurgents.
But McChrystal and Petraeus "believed they needed a much bigger footprint on the ground to do it," the source told IPS.
The Petraeus proposal had apparently been submitted to the administration some time ago. But the story quoted a "senior American officer" as saying, "We've never been as close as we are now to getting the go-ahead to go across."
The leak to the Times followed the circulation within the administration of two National Intelligence Estimates on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The NIE on Afghanistan reportedly included the first formal judgment that the United States is unlikely to succeed in Afghanistan unless Pakistan changes its policy radically and moves decisively against insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan.
The estimate on Pakistan concluded that the Pakistani government is unlikely to change its policy toward the Taliban and the Haqqani network, as reported by the Washington Post Dec. 16.
The five-page "Summary of Findings" on the December review of the Afghan war strategy issued by the administration last week referred to "gains" as "fragile and reversible" and pointedly stated, "Consolidation of those gains will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks."
The continued existence of sanctuaries in Pakistan and the failure of the Pakistani military to cooperate fully with U.S. strategy could have been cited by the administration as reason for speeding up the process of withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan rather than supporting a new military adventure in Pakistan.
But the Obama administration has painted itself into a corner by refusing to acknowledge publicly that the Petraeus war strategy is not working, despite obvious skepticism about it in the White House. A Dec. 16 story in the Washington Post reported that senior officials had already decided to base the administration's arguments for a "significant drawdown" of troops to begin in July 2011 not on the obvious failure of the Gen. Petraeus's strategy but on his claims that the strategy is succeeding.
They consider that course "less politically dangerous" than arguing that the Petraeus strategy hadn't worked, according to the Post story. "It's always better to call it success as opposed to failure," a senior official was quoted as saying.
Also favoring the proposal for cross-border raids is the fact that those in the administration who sought to limit the number of troops and the duration of their stay in Afghanistan - including Vice-President Joe Biden - have relied heavily on SOF units to target Taliban insurgents both in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, as Bob Woodward documents in "Obama's War".
The alternative to the McChrystal counterinsurgency strategy supported by Biden and others last year envisioned possible SOF raids on sanctuaries in Pakistan, according to a report in The Times of London Tuesday.