September 27, 2010

Petraeus’s COIN Turns One-Sided

NATO’s cross-boarder raid into Pakistan can flip one of two ways, but they might lead to the same outcome. Despite Pakistan’s public protests, the possibility cannot be discounted that Washington and Islamabad secretly agree to hot-pursuit operations into Pakistani territory. Both governments have played their part for several years while US drones bombarded Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), denouncing and denying in synchrony.

NATO has also conducted helicopter raids in the past, notably at Angoor Ada.

Conversely, NATO’s actions have begun to give the impression that no such agreement exists on hot-pursuit. In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan initially argued, "Our forces have the right of self-defense. They were being attacked, and they responded."

Pakistan’s Foreign Office countered, “These incidents are a clear violation of the UN mandate under which ISAF operates. The mandate ‘terminates’ at the Afghan border. There are no agreed ‘hot pursuit’ rules. Any impression to the contrary is factually incorrect. Such violations are unacceptable.”

Pakistani military sources then informed The Dawn that Pentagon officials had backtracked on the helicopters’ location, and were now working to establish that they stayed within Afghanistan. Coordinating a day’s rhetoric would be no challenge in the information age. Then again, the stark distinction between explanations suggests that Washington realized it literally crossed too far over what Islamabad publicly labels “the red line.”

Three individual raids occurred in total. The first strike occurred after insurgents moved in from Pakistan to attack outpost Narizah in Khost province, home turf of the Haqqani network. Afghan forces requested NATO air-support, and two helicopters quickly located and eliminated what NATO described as 60 of Haqqanis’ troops. A second strike killed four insurgents after the helicopters returned to the border and took small arms fire, while a third strike targeted another 10.

Two drone strikes were carried out in North Waziristan around the same time as NATO’s helicopter raid. A good day for NATO forces - in a conventional war. But are the risks justified in a counterinsurgency?

US General David Petraeus, commander of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, seemed to think so; the alleged COIN master spoke in strictly conventional terms when addressing the media. Describing the fight as NATO “being out in front of the enemy,” this small battle appears to a case of catching guerrillas in the open. Throughout history counterinsurgents have searched for elusive large-scale battles against insurgents, often to no avail, and Afghanistan is no different from Vietnam.

"They were trying to infiltrate from Pakistan into Afghanistan in Khost, and attacked two Afghan border police posts, and ISAF forces responded and caught those out in the open there," Petraeus said.

But in the White House’s case it must hope more exists to Petraeus’s explanation. It’s unlikely that a significant Haqqani commander would attack a border outpost, so the best news would be that NATO helicopters avoided Pakistani air-space. Yet these odds also appear low after Pakistani military officials confirmed the violation. And so we’re left to wonder what Petraeus gained by approving a cross-boarder raid other than 70 militant bodies and an infuriated Pakistan.

Sacrificing the military for the political is the essence of counterinsurgency, otherwise tactical victory can descend into strategic failure.

If one must pick between two evils, a predetermined arrangement offers a modest opportunity for damage control. At least government and military relations would remain normal. Yet a secret agreement between Washington and Islamabad, essentially with its military, has already agitated Pakistan’s political opposition, further clogging Pakistan’s parliament. Even the ruling PPP, far too close to Washington for many Pakistanis’ taste, threatened that soldiers may return fire in the event of another raid.

As usual Pakistan’s media also took its gloves off to handle America, influencing the final and most critical audience - the Pakistani people. Reacting partially to their leaders and media, these organs primarily react to how they feel. Though Pakistani public opinion hasn’t totally halted US military operations, they have significantly reduced the level of activity and, were the majority of Pakistanis friendly, sizable US forces would have entered the FATA by now.

Option B - that Islamabad sincerely disallows hot-pursuit - suffers from the same problems with one obvious exception. Pakistan’s military has grown used to taking flak from its people whenever the latest US controversy explodes. This doesn’t mean they like to, and this bombshell could be bigger than normal.

Failing to protect Pakitani’s sovereignty embarrasses the military in front of its own people.

Given the many political risks in Pakistan, it’s hard to understand what benefit could outweigh the damage already dealt. Especially odd is that Petraeus's daily report to journalists covered ongoing negotiations with the Taliban, a distinct counterinsurgency choice of politics over military. But the barrage of US military activity in Haqqani’s North Waziristan sanctuary, which borders Khost, is designed to eliminate its political ties with Pakistan.

Petraeus appears to have committed a counterinsurgency error. Though US officials claim that Sirajuddin and his father Jalaluddin, a legendary CIA-supported mujahideen, represent a main threat to US troops in Afghanistan, they shouldn’t underestimate how deep the Haqqanis’ ties run with Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Severing them may be impossible, and counterproductive if possible.

Equally important to recognize is that Pakistan’s people, largely off limits to the Haqqani network, don’t possess the same hatred that they do for the home-grown Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Despite their own cross-border ties, Pakistanis generally view the Haqqanis as Afghan nationalists rather than a threat, and are unlikely to sympathize with US forces who they feel shouldn’t be in Afghanistan to begin with.

So does Petraeus know something that we don’t? Did he feel that he could cancel a bad deed with a good deed? Or did he simply make the wrong decision - and how wide will the damage actually spread?


  1. This goes back to.

    The enemy of my enemy is my enemy.

  2. A confusing policy whatever the intentions may be. If Washington is truly open to negotiating with Taliban leaders, why not the Haqqanis? Their ties to al-Qaeda must be weighed against the reality that the Haqqani network isn't a military network but a complete network - political, military, economic, and social.

    US estimates put Special Forces kills in excess of 2,000 fighters, but Haqqani controls somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. The Haqqanis aren't foreigners and cannot be uprooted from their own territory. And yet US policy is trying to eliminate them before a final agreement is reached.

    Of course we see only the shadows, but any negotiations with the Taliban need further clarification and analysis to succeed. Though the process appears to be gaining traction, it also appears selective and unstable.