Tackling Al-Qaeda in Pakistan

The Methodology Behind Attacking AQ in Pakistan
Cross-posted From The Grand Strategy Blog, July 22, 2007

A growing chorus of voices – including co-chair of the Iraq Study Group Lee Hamilton, Rudy Giuliani, and the Washington Post editorial board – is advocating a direct American aerial strike or ground operation in Pakistan to decapitate the Al Qaeda leadership cell that has, by most accounts, found sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Among Administration officials, White House spokesman Tony Snow said, “We never rule out any options, including striking actionable targets” and the U.S. military has offered intelligence and military assistance to Pakistan for operations in its tribal areas. This wave of opinion not coincidentally developed in the wake of the release of a National Intelligence Estimate on July 17, which asserts that Al Qaeda has carved out a safe haven in Pakistan’s rugged western frontier.

A direct American strike against Al Qaeda elements in Pakistan is not a revolutionary idea. As the New York Times reported on July 8, Donald Rumsfeld aborted a covert operation involving several hundred U.S. special forces – based on intelligence that al-Zawahiri would be attending a meeting in North Waziristan – in 2005. Again targeting al-Zawahiri, the United States bombed a house in Pakistan’s Bajaur Agency in January 2006, killing 18, but not the Al Qaeda #2. Several other air strikes – including another in Bajaur Agency in October 2006, one in South Waziristan in January 2007, and most recently in North Waziristan in June 2007 – were carried out against militant Islamist gatherings either directly by the United States or, more likely, by the Pakistan Air Force acting on American intelligence. The NYT claims that, in light of the NIE’s findings, the Bush Administration is again considering “more aggressive measures inside Pakistan.”

The prism through which the decision to attack Al Qaeda in Pakistan must be weighed is simple to define but difficult to discern: does the attack enhance American national security? The great fear is that Al Qaeda will use its Pakistani sanctuary to plan another catastrophic attack on American soil. The reluctance to attack Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan, on the other hand, stems from the certain backlash such an operation would hasten among Pakistanis, and the possibility that such an imperious attack on Pakistani soil could counterproductively advance the spread of extremism in Pakistan and deter Pakistan from assisting American counterterrorist aims.

Thus, the calculation should be determined by a cost-benefit analysis: (1) (the benefit) how central is the Al Qaeda element in Pakistan to plotting and funding attacks on American soil? and (2) (the cost) What is the likely Pakistani response to an American invasion of Pakistani sovereignty and how important is it for the United States to count Pakistan as an ally in the years ahead? Both (1) and (2) generate volumes of analysis, because neither have unambiguous answers.

The above calculation does not even consider another central variable – the strength of the intelligence upon which the operation is based. An operation that fails to achieve its objective and still triggers negative repercussions in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is a nightmare scenario for Washington, and is not outside the realm of possibility.

The fact that the benefit is by no means guaranteed but the cost is relatively fixed must be factored into the cost-benefit continuum. As Washington has yet to undertake a risky covert action against Al Qaeda in FATA, so far the cost of such an operation has exceeded the benefit. Without a doubt, a ground attack has a much higher cost than an aerial strike, for which there is at least a barometer for Pakistan’s response. With the NIE’s assertion that the cost of inaction against Al Qaeda is now elevated, the equation seems to be inching toward action.

Without “actionable intelligence,” that point is moot. When fresh intelligence is collected, though, let’s hope that the White House and Pentagon have thoughtfully assessed the relative cost and benefit of any action and a rational decision can be made expeditiously.

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