I’ve argued repeatedly that the individual soldier, and not an airplane dropping thousands of pounds of explosives, the most precise weapon in our arsenal. In fact, when discussing the challenges posed by decapitation strikes into Pakistan’s tribal areas, I’ve argued that soldiers should be preferable to bombs or Predator strikes, precisely because they tend to produce lower casualties with higher target precision.
The way this incursion into Musa Nika, just over the border from Paktika, however, is troublesome. According to the Washington Post, which is quoting an anonymous Pakistani official, the target was the house of a local Taliban commander. In a pattern familiar to Afghanistan watchers, the governor is claiming women and children died at American hands, though for a welcome change the U.S. is not running its mouth off about a situation it is clearly unprepared to discuss (in this specific case, silence is far more valuable than spouting random numbers they can’t immediately confirm).
If this is true, and it must be taken with a big grain of salt, it is troublesome. For one, capturing a Pakistani Taliban might be outside the U.S.’s purview, because known Pakistani Taliban commanders, such as Baitullah Mehsud, haven’t actually claimed or been assigned blame for any attacks inside Afghanistan or against U.S. forces (Afghan Taliban commanders, and known al-Qaeda agents on the other hand, have).
For another, by the looks of initial reports this was really damned sloppy. Undertaking this raid during Ramadan is a silly move, since people wake up earlier to pray and eat before the daily fast; as a result, they lost the element of surprise since many neighbors were already up and organized protests of the troops’ presence. We don’t yet know what the exact time line is, and if the presence of protesters during this operation, which almost certainly involved Special Forces, contributed to the claims of civilian deaths (which stands, according to unconfirmed local reports, at ten out of a total of fifteen to twenty deaths).
Lastly, if American/NATO forces are to carry out raids into Pakistan, the rules of the game change. They lose the right to complain about cross-border attacks since they will be launching their own. They must be absolutely positive they don’t kill the wrong VIP, since there is a difference between the Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the many Pakistani Taliban groups, and regular old tribal militancy. Pakistan’s extremism scene, in other words, is actually much more complicated than Afghanistan’s—and they didn’t have the benefit of a straight decade of civil war to ruin their traditional social relationships.
Let us allow history to be a guide as well. The British had terrible luck fighting in Waziristan. They began a war against a militant demagogue in 1936 and, despite nearly 40,000 troops combing the hills never caught him. He was only marginalized after partition in 1947. So there is also a real danger of biting off far more than we can chew.
And all of this leaves aside the quite honest hope that we really do have a secret Memorandum or something with Pakistan that allows us to do this and both sides are unwilling to admit to it because of domestic politics. Because otherwise we’ve declared war on Pakistan.