'Beyond Madness': Obama's War on Terror Setting Nuclear-Armed Pakistan on Fire

Rather than seeking to stabilize Pakistan, General David Petraeus has been irresponsibly lighting matches with his shortsighted use of Special Forces and drone strikes.

Few countries on earth face as many serious problems as giant, nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is today like a seething, heaving, bubbling, and combustible pool of chemicals in increasing danger of explosion. America badly needs to try and stabilize the nation, through a vast increase in economic aid on the order of the tens of billions of dollars it is wasting in Afghanistan – most importantly to reduce the dangers of nuclear proliferation through "immense threats of theft from nuclear insiders with extremist sympathies, al Qaeda or Taliban outsider attacks, and a weak state," of which one observer warned last April.

But rather than seeking to stabilize Pakistan, General David Petraeus has, incredibly, been irresponsibly lighting matches through his shortsighted and relentless effort to secure Afghanistan by using U.S. forces and drone strikes, and pressuring the Pakistani Army to attack Taliban “sanctuaries” in Pakistan’s northwest provinces. Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan's High Commissioner to London for the past 16 years and a pillar of the Establishment, has recently stated that U.S. drone and gunship attacks in Pakistan have “set the country on fire” and threatened that such acts could eventually lead to attacks on U.S. personnel in Pakistan.

Petraeus has disastrously miscalculated. The more “progress” he tries to show in Afghanistan, the more he weakens the U.S. position in far more important Pakistan. As reported in this space 16 months ago, unless General Petraeus is replaced U.S. leaders may well face a catastrophe in Pakistan that would dwarf their disastrous miscalculations in invading Indochina, supporting the Shah of Iran and occupying Iraq.

The single most important -- yet surprisingly ignored -- revelation of Bob Woodward's new book, Obama's Wars, is that Petraeus and the Obama team never discussed how their strategy for attacking Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan was weakening the Pakistani state. Woodward also makes clear that it is Petraeus, not Obama, who is driving U.S. policy in “Af-Pak.” CIA Director Leon Panetta declared that "no Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it. So just do it. Do what they say," according to the book. Petraeus’ power derives from America’s unconscious need for a military hero and his perceived and overblown success in Iraq. But this perception has blinded normally sensible observers to his disastrous performance in Pakistan since becoming Centcom commander in October 2008.

For the past two years Petraeus has relentlessly attacked Taliban forces in northwest Pakistan. But this policy has significantly strengthened Al Qaeda, the Taliban and local extremist forces instead of weakening them. A jaw-dropping development on August 16 revealed just how badly Petraeus has mishandled his two-year stewardship of U.S. military policy toward Pakistan, as the Wall Street Journal reported:

Pakistan's main spy agency says homegrown Islamist militants have overtaken the Indian army as the greatest threat to national security ... for the first time in 63 years.

Yes, that's right. Pakistani military intelligence now rates domestic insurgency a greater threat than India for the first time since Pakistan was created -- largely as a result of U.S. actions. As McClatchy Newspapers reported last April:

Concerns are growing among U.S. intelligence and military officials that the (drone) strikes are prompting Islamist radicals to disperse into the country's heartland. As a result of the drone attacks, insurgent activities are "more dispersed in Pakistan and focusing on Pakistani targets," said Christine Fair of the RAND Corp., "So we have shifted the costs." (i.e. from Afghanistan to Pakistan). A U.S. military official .. called the drone operations a "recruiting windfall for the Pakistani Taliban."

While U.S. assassination has undoubtedly killed a handful of genuine insurgent leaders -- 18 of the 1659 Pakistanis murdered since 2006 according to the far right-wing Long War Journal, it has created far more jihadists who are cooperating far more and are far more motivated to do far more damage in a far greater area of Pakistan. And beyond. The "Times Square Bomber" who almost killed many Americans described how he was motivated by his anger toward the U.S. government for its routine murder of Pakistanis by drones. Foreign Policy reports that total suicide attacks worldwide have risen sixfold since 2004, and that “over 90 percent of suicide attacks worldwide are now anti-American. The vast majority of suicide terrorists hail from the local region threatened by foreign troops."

Petraeus and the Obama team make the mistake of measuring progress by body counts. Woodward reports that “(Rahm) Emanuel showed an intense interest in the drone strikes and called CIA Director Leon Panetta regularly with one question: ‘Who did we get today?’” Our credulous media reports the latest CIA leak on “high level insurgents” killed but don’t ask how many are left.

ABC News reported October 15, “citing success with counterterrorism operations, Petraeus said 300 Taliban leaders had been captured or killed in the last 90 days.” But Petraeus has forgotten the basic lesson of Vietnam: it’s not how many “insurgents” you kill but how many you create. The American people are not told an obvious fact: U.S. policy is creating many more insurgents than it is killing among the giant pool of 41 million Pashtuns on both sides of the border, 28 million in Pakistan, whose culture includes a major focus on revenge.

Knowledgeable observers of Pakistan are now worried as never before. Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan's best-known analyst, has warned that Pakistan is facing "a gradual meltdown, with the army and the political elite unable to challenge the rising power of the Pakistani Taliban or protect the civilian population. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has written that "as someone who has visited Pakistan often over the past year, I worry that the country is nearing .. a moment when the multiple pressures overwhelm the government's ability to cope and Pakistan borders on becoming a failed state.”

To fully grasp how reckless and myopic Petraeus has been, it is important to first understand the array of crises the country now faces:

  • Economic collapse. The New York Times has reported that "Pakistan's Army Chief, General Kiyani, last month reportedly warned President Asif Ali Zardari that the country is on the verge of economic collapse." Its Finance Minister has stated that the economy is "heading toward the abyss" and the government may be unable to pay its employees in two months. Pakistan also has $55 billion in foreign debt it couldn’t service even before the summer floods, which will add $43 billion more debt, according to an estimate by the Prime Minister. Inflation is expected to be as high as 20 percent next year.
  • Massive flood damage. The Los Angeles Times reported that "agriculture accounts for 43% of the country's jobs, but a fifth of Pakistan's irrigation infrastructure, livestock and crops have been destroyed."
  • A corrupt and incompetent government and ruling class. The corrupt and feudal Pakistani ruling class is also incompetent, as shown by its inability to help 20 million of the country’s citizens displaced by the floods. The Economist reported that "international donors ... are frustrated by the government's inability to put forward any sort of post-flood reconstruction plan. Nor has the government taken the chance to push through economic reforms that, as the floods have made clear, are urgently needed."
  • A parasitical, brutal and ineffective military. The military, Pakistan's real rulers, enrich themselves by running giant commercial enterprises and increasing military spending while millions of Pakistanis go hungry. As Ahmed Rashid has reported, "this year's $38 billion budget has seen a 30 percent increase in military expenditures from last year. This clearly leaves little money for health and education." They also have no interest or experience in conducting counter-insurgency. When forced by America last year to attack the Swat Valley and southern Waziristan, they conducted mass murder from the air, stuck to the roads, generated 1.5 million refugees, lost 2,500 soldiers, could not hold on to the areas they captured, and committed numerous crimes of war. The NY Times reported that "the Pakistani military relies more and more on American-supplied F-16 fighter jets and Cobra helicopter gunships to bomb militants in areas of treacherous terrain, increasing civilian casualties, according to reporters and Pakistani officials in the tribal areas."
  • Widespread anarchy and violence. Writing of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city with 18 million people, and its major port and financial center, Rashid reported that "Karachi is in the grip of heavily armed mafias and criminal gangs … Ethnic violence and is translated into interparty political assassinations, party workers of all groups are being targeted." In Baluchistan Province, he writes, "there is another civil war going on between Baluch separatists and the army. The insurgents launch ambushes and assassinations, and lay land mines every day (and) the army in turn has brutalized Baluch society."
  • Growing Al Qaeda and Jihadist strength in Pakistan’s heartland. The most serious unintended consequence of Petraeus' tactics has been the growing strength of jihadist forces in Pakistan's Punjabi heartland, as the NY Times reported on June 2: "A senior Pakistani official declared in a surprising public admission that extremist groups were entrenched in the southern portion of the nation's most populous province (Punjab), underscoring the growing threats to the state.”
  • Nuclear confrontation with India. Pakistan is engaged in a dangerous nuclear arms race with India, as the Wall Street Journal reported: "Pakistan currently has about 70 to 90 nuclear warheads, and India has between 60 and 80, according to estimates published by the Federation of American Scientists." It deploys 400,000 troops against India and funds insurgent groups in India's Muslim-majority Kashmir, a constant flashpoint.

With the exception of preventing a Middle East conflagration, U.S. foreign policy thus clearly has no higher priority than seeking to stabilize an increasingly fragile and combustible Pakistan.

After destabilizing Pakistan at Centcom, however, Petraeus has made things even worse since becoming Afghan commander in June of this year. The NY Times reported:

Petraeus, has been pulling out all the stops (including) pressing the Central Intelligence Agency to ramp up Predator and Reaper drone operations in Pakistan. He has also, through the not-so-veiled threat of cross-border ground operations, put pressure on the Pakistani Army to pursue militants in the tribal areas even as the army has continued to struggle with relief from the catastrophic floods this summer.

Nothing symbolizes Petraeus' misplaced priorities more than the report in the same story that:

Petraeus has also, through the not-so-veiled threat of cross-border ground operations, put pressure on the Pakistani Army to pursue militants in the tribal areas even as the army has continued to struggle with relief from the catastrophic floods this summer.

Yes. Petraeus has pushed the Pakistani army to stop helping the millions of its own desperate people facing starvation, homelessness and disease so as to fight America's war in Afghanistan.

He is doing so through threats and bribes. On October 22 news agencies reported that the Obama administration offered $2.3 billion to the Pakistani military to attack tribal areas but also, according to the Wall Street Journal, “threatened that current cash payments to Pakistan could be reduced if things don’t improve in … North Waziristan.”

The same article also reported that Petraeus is pushing the Pakistani government to accept more clandestine U.S. military personnel in Pakistan – key to understanding Petraeus' recklessness. Knowing he cannot shore up a Karzai government he privately calls a "criminal syndicate" according to Woodward, he has instead turned tomass assassination. ABC News recently reported: "Petraeus said the number of counterterrorism, or precision special forces-type raids in Afghanistan, is three to four times as many as were conducted at the height of the surge in Iraq." David Ignatius, a strong admirer of “warrior-statesman” Petraeus, recently reported that the general is executing:

...a strategy whose biggest successes have come from hard-nosed counterterrorist tactics -- the midnight raid, kick-down-the-door ferocity of the Joint Special Operations Command ... According to one Special Forces operative, a recent review of operations Petraeus requested showed that 90 percent of the operational success in Afghanistan has come from 5 percent of the forces -- primarily those secret JSOC teams.

Petraeus is clearly pushing for Pakistani permission to increase clandestine U.S. Special Forces and U.S.-directed local assassination operations in Pakistan territory. Yet the Wall Street Journal once again makes clear that what Petraeus wants for Afghanistan threatens to destabilize Pakistan:

U.S. military forces on the ground remain a red line for Islamabad. A senior Pakistani official said if the Pakistan public became aware of U.S. military forces conducting combat operations on Pakistani territory, it would wipe out popular support for fighting the militants in the tribal areas.

Petraeus has clearly badly bungled in Pakistan, not only destabilizing its government but raising anti-American hatred to unprecedented heights. Newsweek recently reported, "In July, only 17 percent of Pakistanis held a favorable view of America, a number that's no doubt dropped since then."

The conflict between Petraeus and rationality in Pakistan will eventually reach its peak in coming months over his all-out attempts to pressure the Pakistani military into attacking North Waziristan, Pakistan's far northwest. Since the Pakistani military and government have been unable to secure Swat, an integral part of Pakistan, they will obviously be even less successful in remote North Waziristan. And what is even worse is that if U.S. and Pakistani attacks there were successful, it would only geometrically increase jihadist activity in Pakistan proper.

Insurgent forces have been following classic guerrilla tactics in the AfPak theater – moving north and making unprecedented gains throughout northern Afghanistan when Petraeus attacked them in the south.

If Petraeus’ all-out push to attack North Waziristan were to succeed, therefore, the jihadists would have only one direction in which to move: east into Pakistan's major cities where they have already established strong and growing networks, launched increasing attacks, and are safe from not only drone strikes but Pakistani military interference: "'The who's who of extremism is present in Karachi," said Faisal Ali Subzwari, a Sindh government minister. ‘There are many areas where police and (paramilitary) Rangers cannot even dare to enter. It is a safe haven for those who want a hiding place,'" McClatchy has also reported.

The more Petraeus succeeds in Afghanistan, in short, the more he will lose in Pakistan. And the more he loses in Pakistan the more the U.S. will move into the realm of the unthinkable.

Woodward reports that during Obama’s March 2009 review, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked review coordinator Bruce Riedel whether he had looked for a "silver bullet" to try and force the Pakistani military to go after Taliban sanctuaries. Reidel said, “they had looked at the extreme option of invading Pakistan, and, of course, immediately dismissed it. Invading a country that possessed dozens of nuclear weapons would be something beyond madness. Everyone agreed."

If it is "beyond madness" to invade Pakistan, why is it any more rational to allow General Petraeus to continue policies that may well make an unthinkable invasion the only alternative to allowing its nuclear weapons to fall into hostile hands? Were President Obama to rein in or fire Petraeus it could indeed jeopardize his 2012 reelection. But he owes it to his nation to try, before it is too late.

Fred Branfman, the editor of “Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War” (Harper & Row, 1972), exposed the U.S. secret air war while living in Laos from 1967 to 1971.