As suggested in last month’s PN, the US-UK war in Afghanistan is spreading to Pakistan, as US troops and drones mount attacks on border areas – against the express wishes of the Pakistani government. While Washington is banking on the acquiescence of the government, polls show Pakistani public opinion is outraged and the semi-autonomous Pakistani military appears set on confrontation.
As we mark the seventh anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October, Professor Paul Rogers of the Bradford School of Peace Studies warns that US plans to spread the war are a “recipe for disaster”, with consequences that “could be both violent and unpredictable”.
On 3 September, US special forces mounted a cross-border assault on the village of Jalal Khel, in South Waziristan, about 20 miles inside Pakistan. This was the first publicly acknowledged case of US forces conducting a ground raid on Pakistani soil.
Local reports suggest that the majority of the 20 deaths were of civilians. The US claimed initially that one child had been killed, along with two dozen suspected al-Qaeda fighters.
The New York Times reported that the raid “could be the opening salvo in a much broader campaign by Special Operations forces against the Taliban and Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, a secret plan that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been advocating for months within President Bush’s war council.”
Under arrangements put in place earlier this year, a senior CIA official based at Bagram air base in Afghanistan now coordinates the covert operations of the CIA, the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy Seals in the border region.
According to the NYT, Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allowed US special forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government.
These are illegal attacks amounting to international terrorism against Pakistan.
Drones of death
For the most part, the new US onslaught has been conducted by pilotless aircraft – Predator and Reaper drones – controlled from computer screens in the region or the US.
On 5 September, three children and two women were killed when missiles fired by a suspected US drone, “the third such attack in as many days”, The Times reported.
On 8 September, five missiles fired from a pilotless drone struck a compound in North Waziristan, killing 9 people including 2 children, according to a Pakistani intelligence official.
A further 12 people – including women and children, according to residents speaking to Pakistani reporters – were killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan on 13 September.
On 17 September, a drone fired four missiles at the village of Baghar in South Waziristan, killing at least four people and wounding three. This came only hours after the chair of the US joint chiefs of staff made a surprise visit to Islamabad, promising to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Earlier, on 15 September, the US had attempted another ground assault in South Waziristan, a mission that was aborted after the nine US helicopters came under fire – apparently from Pakistani paramilitary forces at a checkpoint.
Afterwards, the Pakistani high command announced that it had instructed field commanders to fire on any troops crossing the border into Pakistan: “No incursion is to be tolerated.”
Public blames US
A nationwide poll (conducted in May-June) by an affiliate of Gallup Pakistan found that only 12% of Pakistanis supported any unilateral US military action against al Qa’eda fighters inside Pakistan. 58% of Pakistanis favoured negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban (as opposed to 19% who back military action instead), and half of all Pakistanis wanted their government to negotiate with (rather than fight) al Qa’eda (with less than a third backing military action against them).
52% of Pakistanis said that the US bore most responsible for the violence in Pakistan today. 44% thought the US posed the greatest threat to their personal safety (as opposed to 14% who said India, and 8% who said the Pakistani Taliban).
What now for Britain?
There has been speculation that the US is seeking British support for intervention in Pakistan, including the possible involvement of British special forces in future cross-border incursions.
However, on 16 September, Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s new president, claimed after a meeting with Gordon Brown that the British prime minister opposed the US cross-border raids because “such action does not help democracy” – restored only in February.
Jack Straw, who has a reputation for going too far on such matters, said: “We keep our military action within the borders of Afghanistan.”
According to the Sunday Times, US and British special forces have been conducting covert reconnaissance for drone strikes since March of this year.
Significantly, about 70% of the fuel, clothes and food needed by NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is transported in civilian Pakistani trucks through the Khyber pass from the port of Karachi.