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Implications of Overt U.S. Operations in Pakistan

June 17, 2008 | 0123 GMT
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Speaking at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday, U.S. President George W. Bush expressed support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s June 15 remarks that Kabul would send forces into Pakistan to prevent the Taliban from using the South Asian country as a launchpad for attacks in Afghanistan.

Karzai, who spoke after a major jailbreak in Kandahar in which hundreds of Taliban fighters escaped, specifically mentioned the Waziristan-based Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah, the jihadist leader in the district of Swat in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Pakistani authorities have been negotiating peace agreements with these two jihadist leaders.

It is no coincidence that Bush’s and Karzai’s statements come just days after a U.S. airstrike against a paramilitary outpost in Pakistan that killed 11 Pakistani soldiers. Afghan forces alone clearly lack the ability to conduct cross-border operations in Pakistan, regardless of Karzai’s wishes; Afghanistan can barely secure its own capital. U.S. forces — most likely operating outside the aegis of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force — probably would carry out any such move.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are undergoing a shift Stratfor mentioned in May in which the United States is no longer relying on Pakistan to rein in Islamist militants on its side of the border, but is imposing a situation in which it will become the norm for U.S.-led coalition forces to conduct operations openly inside Pakistan. While U.S. special operations forces and CIA teams have been operating covertly in Pakistan essentially since the beginning of the U.S.-jihadist war, this operational tempo appears to have increased to the point that it is poised to become overt. From the U.S. point of view, Pakistan’s new civil-military leadership is failing to respond to the jihadist threat aggressively, and there is growing U.S. mistrust of the South Asian country’s military and intelligence apparatus.

This perception could help explain the U.S. position that the airstrike on (what Pakistan maintains is) a well-established Pakistani outpost was justified. While U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for a joint inquiry into the incident, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen maintained that U.S. forces took action against hostile forces and that the operation was carried out in keeping with operational protocol. It is no secret that Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, whose outpost was hit, is viewed as sympathetic to the Taliban and its allies. This apparently led the United States to take matters into its own hands.

Though it is very difficult to describe the nature of U.S. operations on Pakistani soil, Karzai’s comments offer some insight. By threatening not just Mehsud but also Fazlullah, Karzai was hinting that such operations might not be limited to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas but could extend to the NWFP. This leaves the Pakistanis in a very difficult position.

Islamabad could pre-empt the U.S. move by giving Washington exactly what it wants and engaging in a massive action against the militants and their sympathizers within the Pakistani security establishment. Given Pakistan’s performance thus far, this is probably not likely, however. But the inability to make such a move is contributing to the growing international perception of Pakistan as a dysfunctional state, and only pushes the United States further toward taking unilateral action.

Routine U.S. raids on Pakistani soil could lead to clashes not only with militants but also with local tribesmen and others who might not support the Taliban. This very well could create a major uprising in Pakistan, with a strong nationalist reaction from a population that already harbors highly anti-American sentiments. Worse, such raids could create fissures and possibly even fractures with the Pakistani army. This would be especially true if Pakistani troops end up clashing with U.S. forces — something certainly not impossible, considering the deteriorating situation in Pakistan.

Rifts within its army would greatly destabilize the Pakistani state. The military is the only robust institution in Pakistan, and is the cornerstone of whatever stability remains in the South Asian country. But the recent turn of events means Islamabad must choose between confrontation with the United States and confrontation with the jihadists.

Stratfor is the world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. Our global team of intelligence professionals provides our Members with insights into political, economic, and military developments to reduce risks, to identify opportunities, and to stay aware of happenings around the globe.

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