Faisal Shahzad's attempt to explode a car-bomb near New York’s Times Square on 1 May 2010 was dismissed almost at once as an amateurish “one-off” attempt by a lone eccentric. It soon became clear that the operation, though in the end abortive, was much more serious: for the perpetrator was an American citizen of Pakistani origin who had recently been in Pakistan and was reported to have connections with the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) movement there. Moreover, the arrest on 13 May of three people suspected of funding Shahzad in the northeast United States raises the possibility that at least one organised cell there has been been able to escape detection.
The official response to the news was a mixture of consternation and denial. The reports that Shahzad was motivated by anger at United States drone-attacks in western Pakistan were quickly dismissed, not least by the senior White House counter-terror specialist John O'Brennan. He preferred to attribute Shahzad’s actions to the “murderous rhetoric of al-Qaeda and the TTP that looks at the United States as an enemy” (Anne E Kornblut & Karin Brulliard, “U.S. blames Pakistani Taliban for Times Square bomb plot”, Washington Post, 10 May 2010).
Behind this reductive explanation is a form of thought that is deeply entrenched in government circles across Washington and extends to many other western European countries (including leading members of the new coalition government in Britain). In stark terms, the al-Qaida movement and the diverse Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan are motivated by a blind and adamantine loathing for the United States.
The massive US military response is legitimised by the horror of 9/11. This rationale has survived wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have consumed more than 100,000 lives and created over 4 million refugees. The wars may have set in motion an enduring cycle of violence and instability in both countries (which in Afghanistan’s case is heading towards its tenth year), but American strategists remain unable to rethink their fundamental approach in light of the devastation it has created (see “A phantom endgame”, 3 May 2010).
The core of the United States’s entrapment is the failure to recognise that the conduct of these wars, and especially the military occupation of two countries, drives a bitter and persistent hatred of the United States and its coalition partners. This elemental force fuels increasing opposition in Afghanistan, and may now be having an enhanced impact in Pakistan (see Julian E Barnes, “Afghan Taliban getting stronger, Pentagon says”, Los Angeles Times, 29 April 2010).
The Faisal Shahzad case may throw light on this interplay when he comes to trial, especially as initial reports suggest that before the Times Square incident, his several months in Pakistan had included a period in Waziristan when armed-drone attacks were increasing markedly in intensity (see Christopher Drew, "Drones: the weapon of choice in fighting Al Qaeda", International Herald Tribune, 18 March 2009).
Perhaps most indicative in this regard is the combination of the aftermath of the Times Square incident and recent developments in US military operations in Pakistan. The most significant of these is the decision further to expand the drone-attacks so that they would be deployed against relatively low-level people in the TTP, al-Qaida and other groups (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “US takes the war into Pakistan”, Asia Times, 10 May 2010).
The move will enable a substantial escalation in the intensity of the attacks, especially in North Waziristan; paramilitaries will be targeted wherever they can be spotted, even if they are not identified individually. Moreover, the attacks may be much more intensive than in the recent past. There have already been three drone-assaults in the first two weeks of May 2010; one of these, on 11 May, used up to eighteen missiles to target a TTP area and kill fourteen alleged insurgents. Hussain Afzal reports:
“The number of missiles fired into North Waziristan was unusually high, reflecting multiple targets. They struck cars, homes and tents across a wide area in the Doga area, where insurgents have hideouts and training facilities” (see “Missile attacks kill twenty-four in Pakistan tribal area”, Associated Press, 11 May 2010).
This represents a considerable escalation in US military operations in Pakistan (see Javed Aziz Khan, “Drone attacks rise in Pakistan”, The News [Pakistan], 12 May 2010). While detailed information on drone-strikes is limited, it seems probable that the pattern of use of armed-drones until recently meant the firing of one or two weapons against closely identified targets, usually centred on a significant paramilitary figure. This pattern is changing towards more substantial air-raids on generic rather than specific targets (as in the 11 May attack). These may still be undertaken using pilotless drones, but they will more resemble the large-scale strikes previously carried out by powerful strike-aircraft.
What makes this possible at the technical level is the deployment of the new generation of drones, especially the MQ-9 Reaper, a strike-aircraft in all but name (see “Drone wars”, 16 April 2009). So close is the Reaper to a bomber that one US air national guard fighter-wing (the New York-based 174th) is giving up flying F-16 strike-aircraft and going over to remotely “flying” armed drones.
The motive for the expansion of drone-attacks is twofold. The first is the urgent need to try to control the many Tehrik-e-Taliban/al-Qaida elements in Pakistan that are inserted into Afghanistan; this is felt even more acutely since the Pentagon’s pessimistic assessment of the Afghan war’s prospects in a report published on 28 April (see “Afghanistan: a phantom endgame”, 3 May 2010).
The second motive is the deep reluctance of the Pakistani army to move into the most tightly controlled insurgent district of North Waziristan. The US dilemma is that it cannot make progress in Afghanistan while there is such a concentration of paramilitary movements across the border - yet the Pakistanis simply will not sort out that problem.
It is quite impossible for the Pentagon to take the risk of deploying large numbers of its own ground-troops in North Waziristan, since that would cause deep antagonism in Pakistan. The answer, therefore, is to greatly expand the use of drones, with the “pilots” safely based in Nevada. There can be no doubt that this is approaching a step-change in the whole conflict. In political terms it is akin to United States operations in Cambodia and Laos in the later years of the Vietnam war (see "The hi-tech battlefield", 27 September 2007).
The gulf between
The mindset that informs this approach sees it as the justified killing of fanatical terrorists in the grip of an insane ideology. This makes a kind of sense when it confronts the many, complex problems in Afghanistan. The problem is that the situation looks so completely different among the populations under attack. For them, this is a distant enemy able to strike with impunity - and doing so with increasing intensity. The people being killed may be Tehrik-e-Taliban militants, but they are also mostly local people with wives, children, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, wider extended family and many friends (see Mark Mazzetti, "The Downside of Letting Robots Do the Bombing", New York Times, 21 March 2009).
In the Pentagon, the deaths of half a dozen low-level paramilitaries may be a sign of success in a difficult war, but for the hundreds of people who were related to them or who knew them they are seen as victims of a terror assault by the “far enemy” (see “The AfPak war: failures of success”, 8 April 2010).
The consequence may not always be incidents such as the Times Square bomb. But the conditions that sparked this attack will have a steadily accumulating effect. This will confirm the unwinnable nature of the war, but also do something deeper: reinforce even further the fundamental difference in outlook and understanding between Washington and Waziristan.