The US government is considering direct military intervention in the tribal areas of Pakistan, risking an escalated conflict with Pashtun nationalism in the name of crushing al Qaeda. An essay in last week's Washington Post, a front page story in today's New York Times and reports from the Real News Network all confirm that a decision to intervene is near. The Times confirms that as many as 50 American personnel, whether special forces or CIA, already operate clandestinely inside the Pakistani border.
Democrats have called no hearings nor raised significant voices of opposition to the unfolding plan. In New Hampshire last night, Sen. Barack Obama repeated his endorsement of unilateral US military intervention in Pakistan if "actionable intelligence" exists. His Democratic rivals did not dissent.
The consequences of the possible escalation are extremely unpredictable. The alleged al-Qaeda militants are embedded in complex tribal networks in a remote mountainous area. Military action could inflict severe casualties and damage to these traditional communities and inflame anti-American sentiment across Muslim Pakistan. It might accelerate the disintegration of the US-backed Musharraf dictatorship which currently possesses nuclear weapons. Musharraf and the Pakistani military have steadfastly opposed direct American intervention for the past five years.
Speculation is rife that US support for the ill-fated return of Benezir Bhutto to Pakistan was based partly on an understanding that she would endorse and legitimize an expanded US presence in her country. If neither the American embassy nor the Musharraf regime could save her from death at a public event, it is unclear how successful American special forces will be in the wilds of South Waziristan.
There is virtually no public discussion of the implications of American support for a military dictatorship that imprisons Pakistani lawyers while harboring anti-US jihadists. Instead of enforcing the existing Leahy Amendment  which bans military assistance to human rights violators, the US has spent approximately $10 billion in five years supporting the Musharraf regime, alienating a majority of Pakistanis, and lending credence to the claims of Muslim extremists. Having contributed to, or at least failing to have prevented Pakistan's fall into chaos, "senior officials" quoted by the Times now are blaming al-Qaeda for plotting all along to achieve "the big prize, creating chaos in Pakistan itself."
It is ironic that Democrats like Obama, whose campaign was built around questioning the intelligence justifying the Iraq War would now be arguing for a preventive war in a sovereign country if evidence gathered by intelligence sources is merely "actionable."
The further irony is that the "war on terrorism" is escalating without meaningful discussion or dissent in the midst of the most open and democratic of American processes, the presidential debates.
Congressional hearings and questioning by the presidential candidates might stall, circumscribe or prevent the escalation. An alternative policy of reducing US military assistance to Pakistan and demanding the full restoration of civil liberties there, while seeking diplomatic de-escalation in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Palestine is being ignored in the march towards a wider quagmire.
Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.