David Sanger and Eric Schmitt’s report in the New York Times that “President Obama and his national security advisers are considering expanding the American covert war in Pakistan far beyond the unruly tribal areas to strike at a different center of Taliban power in Baluchistan, where top Taliban leaders are orchestrating attacks into southern Afghanistan” raises serious questions about the Obama Administration’s policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There are three issues here:
(1) Airstrikes don’t work. Occasionally, we do manage to kill of a senior AQ or Taliban leader. But there is literally no evidence that this has had a positive strategic impact. AQ remains in business. They maintain a powerful virtual infrastructure and communicate with followers. They trade best practices and continue to build ties to other Islamist organization. And the Taliban, of course, has been growing more powerful year in and year out. When the strongest argument one can make for a policy is a counter-factual (i.e. Afghanistan and Pakistan would be even worse off without our Predator strikes) you know you have a tremendously weak policy option.
( 2) These airstrikes represent an unsustainable, and likely unlawful, continuation of a policy of extrajudicial killings adoped in extremis after 9/11. Ultimately, it simply cannot be the policy of the United States that it has the right to target for execution any individual anywhere in the world that it unilaterally — and in secret — judges to be an enemy combatant. Simply because of the incredible danger of establishing this precedent we should back away from it.
(3) The public diplomacy consequences of this policy are nothing short of disastrous. We cannot have a productive policy with Pakistan without the support of the Pakistani people, and this approach absolutely poisons the well. For that reason alone, if no other, the presumption against airstrikes in Pakistan ought to be tremendously high. Which is not to say that if you can kill someone like Bin Laden it should not be done, but this should be an extremely rare last resort, not a center-piece of our approach.
Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor,is a senior fellow at the American Security Project. An earlier version of this essay was published at ASP’s FlashPoint blog.