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Pakistan's peril

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Three developments this week involving leading protagonists of the "war on terror" offer important signals of the state of play in key areas of conflict. First, a United States national-intelligence estimate (NIE) released on 17 July highlighted the potency of a resurgent al-Qaida that had been able to regroup, establish safe havens in northwestern Pakistan, and even pose the threat of further attacks in the American homeland.

Second, a paper from the defence select committee of Britain's House of Commons published on 18 July 2007 called for a greater Nato commitment in Afghanistan, amid grave concerns among the country's political and media class about the progress of the campaign against the Taliban.

Third, in Pakistan itself the storming of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad has generated a militant backlash that highlights the central position of the country and the regime of Pervez Musharraf in the global contest. Whatever happens in Afghanistan, and whatever al-Qaida proves capable of doing, Pakistan will be a key military and political focus.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September Washington's leverage

There are persistent reports from Islamabad that the true death-toll in the Lal Masjid siege is in the high hundreds, far more than the 102 that the Musharraf administration claims (see “Pakistan signals red”, 5 July 2007).

In any case, the fallout of the crisis has included by numerous attacks by radical Islamists on Pakistani army and government facilities in districts bordering Afghanistan districts.

The militants' operations have included a wave of bombings on 15 July that killed at least forty-four people; a clash with Pakistan's army near the town of Miranshah in North Waziristan on 18 July in which seventeen soldiers died; and (also on 18 July) a suicide-bombing aimed at a police college in the town of Hangu (northwest Pakistan) that slaughtered at least seven people. The attacks continue, and as many as 100 people have been killed in North-West Frontier Province alone in the past week.

The explosion of violence in the border districts seems to make clear that the September 2006 peace agreement between the Musharraf regime and local leaders in North Waziristan is defunct. This involved the army ceasing most operations against militants in return for local leaders agreeing to curb the use of the border districts as transit and training areas for the Taliban's war in Afghanistan.

The George W Bush administration - long before the events surrounding the Islamabad siege - was deeply unhappy about this deal, which it saw as unwise in principle and unworkable in practice (since the local leaders had insufficient power to stop Taliban and al-Qaida militias from continuing their operations). At the same time, Washington has been reluctant to put more pressure on Musharraf, sensitive to the fact that the Pakistani president's tenure was by no means secure in the face of a markedly anti-American mood in much of the country coupled with a large minority in Pakistan who support (wholly or in part) an Islamist political agenda.

Now, however, it looks increasingly likely that the Bush administration is prepared to exert pressure on Musharraf in the effort to encourage him to send his troops into the border districts and attempt to take control. This would be a highly risky operation in a region notoriously resistant to what is seen as external interference; it would almost certainly entail a repeat of the heavy casualties experienced by the Pakistani army in earlier forays, which may be only one source of the doubts being expressed over the loyalty of some army officers.

In this light, Washington may be considering other options to achieve its objective in Pakistan - including direct action by US military units operating from across the border with Afghanistan. There are precedents for such a policy, which have been highly controversial in Pakistan, including the use of armed drones to attack selected targets.

Whether or not a tougher United States policy would have an effect, the readiness to adopt it reflects spreading awareness in Washington that the campaign against the al-Qaida movement is simply not working. The new national-intelligence assessment report shows that after nearly six years of the war on terror, a vigorous al-Qaida network may be in a position to plan assaults inside the United States. This is in the face of a massive military operation in Iraq; major commitments in Afghanistan; tens of thousands of detentions; operations in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere; a huge financial commitment; and nearly 30,000 US soldiers and marines killed or injured.

A war of automatons

In these circumstances, a serious rethink of policies might be expected. Instead, a further escalation seems more likely - rather like the much-vaunted surge in Iraq, but applied to western Pakistan. There are two pointers in particular to the way the American side of the strategy there might proceed.

The first is the construction of a large US military base at the Ghaki pass, just inside the Afghan border with Pakistan (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "A fight to the death on Pakistan's border", Asia Times, 16 July 2007). This is a substantial addition to the two major US facilities elsewhere in Afghanistan - at Kandahar and Bagram - and looks remarkably well situated to conduct operations in Pakistan.

The second is the decision to deploy an entirely new weapons system, an armed drone known as the MQ-9 Reaper. Smaller reconnaissance drones such as the MQ-1 Predator have become major features of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some of these have been equipped with two Hellfire missiles.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicame

The Reaper is on a different scale altogether. For a start, it is four times heavier than a Predator and is the size of a fighter aircraft. Moreover, it is heavily armed and able to carry up to fourteen Hellfire missiles. It has twice the speed of the Predator yet can cruise at much lower speeds, loitering over potential target areas for up to fourteen hours at a time (see Charles J Hanley, "Robot Air Attack Squadron Bound for Iraq", AP, 16 July 2007).

This pilotless aircraft is launched under the control of local crew, but once in the air each drone is operated by two other "crew" based thousands of miles away at Creech air-force base in Nevada, connected by a real-time satellite link. At least nine of the robotic aircraft have already been built by General Atomics; sixty or more are likely to be deployed, initially in Afghanistan and then in Iraq over the next few months.

From a US perspective such automated warfare would have the advantage that US aircrew would not have to overfly Pakistan: they could merely direct the Reapers to hit targets anywhere in western Pakistan from the safety of Nevada.

The exact political impact of such operations in Pakistan is difficult to gauge; but past experience indicates that they would provoke a very strong public reaction, possibly sufficient to destabilise a Pervez Musharraf regime already beset by many other problems. Yet it now looks possible that the Bush administration is prepared to take the risk of losing a leader it still regards as a major ally. The predicament of the war on terror is such that almost anything goes, even the possibility of violent regime change in Pakistan. A fundamental rethink remains out of sight.


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