Greg Scoblete has a good post pondering the question of air strikes in Pakistan in light of revelations (which were, I would add, incredibly unwise to make) that U.S. forces are launching the drones from bases inside Pakistan. Scoblete acknowledges the concerns that some of the critics of the strikes, including myself, have had, but then poses this challenge:
Throughout all these revelations runs the persistent thread that the government in Pakistan, whatever it says publicly, is very much on board with America’s military campaign on its territory. This puts critics of this campaign in the odd position of being more concerned about the stability of Pakistan than the actual government of Pakistan. And unlike the Musharraf regime, the current government has a degree of democratic legitimacy.
This doesn’t make American military action inside Pakistan any less problematic. Zardari could be miscalculating and popular unrest over military action could very well bubble over. But it could be that Pakistan has decided that U.S. military action inside their country is the worst possible option – except for all the others.
This brought to mind something that Spencer Ackerman was reporting earlier, which is that the Pakistani military chief of staff, Ashfaq Kayani, prefers U.S. training of some of his soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics to these strikes. That suggests that allowing the U.S. to launch strikes from bases in Pakistan is not the preferred approach of the Pakistani military, which means that this practice is probably a function of a weak civilian government that feels obliged to acquiesce to pressure from Washington over these strikes in practice while maintaining its public stance of opposition. Far from correcting the basic dependence, real and perceived, of the Pakistani government on Washington’s direction, which contributed so powerfully to Pakistani public discontent with Musharraf, the civilian government seems to have become more dependent, which will probably tend to define its policies in the west in the public’s mind not as a pursuit of Pakistani interests but rather as merely doing Washington’s will. This is not a sustainable arrangement. If we assume that our forces are going to be engaged in this region for the foreseeable future, the democratic civilian government cannot be seen as little more than our puppet, or else it will fall and a new government that will be automatically less inclined to support U.S. efforts will replace it.
If the report about Kayani’s views is accurate, this would mean that the civilian government is willing to cooperate in a policy that the military chief of staff regards as mistaken, or at least as less desirable, and which the public vehemently opposes, which risks throwing the civilian government into disrepute as essentially a puppet regime no different than Musharraf’s now that the use of Pakistani bases is public knowledge. This would tend to undermine the argument that U.S.-Pakistan cooperation has worsened since Musharraf’s resignation and the election of the civilian government, which makes the reflexive support for Musharraf during the last few years of his rule seem even more unnecessary in retrospect. However, it also suggests that the tactic favored by both the last and the current administrations is one that the Pakistani military regards as less effective and it also happens to be one that seems to have negligible effect on the strength of Taliban forces on both sides of the border. Indeed, the much-lamented arrangement struck in Swat province suggests that the Pakistani government has hardly gained ground in the last few months even as these strikes have been successfully killing their targets.
In short, the head of Pakistan’s military believes that launching drone air strikes is not the best tactic available, it is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, it does not seem to be weakening the main threat to the stability of the Pakistani and Afghan states and threatens now to discredit the already weak civilian government in Pakistan. On the other side of the ledger, Al Qaeda leaders are indeed being killed. Evidently, the new administration is as convinced as the previous one that the gains from the latter outweigh the costs of the former, but this seems profoundly and completely wrong. The risks to regional stability and U.S. interests in the region from the destabilization of Pakistan are far greater, and as far as I can see these drone air strikes are exacerbating the fundamental problems of the Pakistani state in unacceptably dangerous ways. Last month I suggested that the new administration did not have a Pakistan policy, but only a Taliban policy; now I am beginning to wonder whether they even have a Taliban policy. If they remain wedded to using these strikes despite the very real dangers to regional stability the strikes pose, I will have to conclude that whatever Taliban policy they do have is badly flawed.