Panetta: Obama to continue GWOT; widening of Pakistan air strikes seen

Leon Panetta, in his first press interview as CIA director, told reporters at Langley Feb. 25 that President Barack Obama will continue the global war on terrorism. “We are going to continue to pursue, we are going to continue to bring pressure, we are going to continue a very aggressive effort to go after terrorists, to go after [Osama] bin Laden, until we bring them to justice,” Panetta said. “That is a fundamental mission that we are committed to here.” (Reuters, Feb. 25)

Panetta did not mention the widening of CIA drone attacks in Pakistan since the new administration. But on March 4, the Washington Times reported:

Unmanned aircraft have begun targeting Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, a shift in strategy by the Obama administration that may reflect efforts to pre-empt a Taliban spring offensive against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military avoided hitting Mr. Mehsud’s forces in 2007 and 2008, during the Bush administration, when the Taliban leader waged a campaign of suicide bombings inside Pakistan and humiliated the Pakistani army in his tribal stronghold near the Afghan border.

However, Mr. Mehsud formed an alliance last month with two other Taliban commanders in North and South Waziristan, a potentially significant development because territory controlled just by Mr. Mehsud does not touch the Afghan border. With the alliance, he now has an inlet to Afghanistan.

Sarfaraz Khan, a professor at the University of Peshawar, traced the new U.S. aggressiveness to the Taliban alliance.

“In order to stop unifying Taliban groups from launching massive attacks against NATO and in particular newly arriving U.S. troops in Afghanistan, such attacks have become indispensable on Americans’ part,” he said.

We’ve noted that Baitullah Mehsud and his Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan constitute the new target, and that the new air-strikes against him come just as Pakistan’s government has brokered a peace-for-sharia deal with Taliban militants in the Swat district of North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The US has largely confined its air-strikes to the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), closer to the Afghan border, but for the first time struck territory in the NWFP last November. Local militants increasingly see the FATA and much of the NWFP as well as Afghanistan’s southeast provinces as an emergent “Pashtunistan“—and resent the increasingly militarized international border running through the heart of the territory.

Following envoy Richard Holbrooke‘s visit to the region last month, Los Angeles Times in a Feb. 15 editorial, “The ‘Af-Pak’ problem,” notes that the administration openly acknowledges that there is a single war either side of the border:

Just in case he had any doubts about the challenges ahead, U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke was welcomed to South Asia last week with a bomb in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar and coordinated attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul that left 26 dead. Afghanistan’s intelligence chief said there may have been contacts between the assailants in Kabul and militants in Pakistan, underscoring that the neighboring countries represent two fronts in one war. The Obama administration has recognized this with Holbrooke’s portfolio, which is now being called “Af-Pak.”

Panetta’s Feb. 25 comments may have dodged Washington’s tender relations with Pakistan, but they got him into hot water with Argentina.

See our last posts on Pakistan, Afghanistan and the politics of the GWOT.

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  1. Obama broaches peace with Taliban
    Even as continued US drone attacks undermine Pakistani efforts to broker peace with its own Taliban insurgents, Obama appears to be considering a similar deal in Afghanistan. From the New York Times, March 8:

    Obama Ponders Outreach to Elements of the Taliban
    WASHINGTON — President Obama declared in an interview that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the door to a reconciliation process in which the American military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.

    Mr. Obama pointed to the success in peeling Iraqi insurgents away from more hard-core elements of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a strategy that many credit as much as the increase of American forces with turning the war around in the last two years. “There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region,” he said, while cautioning that solutions in Afghanistan will be complicated.

    We have argued before that the co-optation of ex-insurgents into surrogates in Iraq is what really led to the de-escalation of the situation there—not the surge—and this constitutes a highly dubious progress: instead of totalitarian sharia enclaves loyal to al-Qaeda, much of Sunni Iraq is now made up of totalitarian sharia enclaves loyal to the US. So is Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan a courageous step towards peace, or capitulation to Taliban tyranny? Sound off readers…

  2. Pentagon suspended Afghan commando raids
    The Pentagon shows some sign of catching on that indiscriminate civilian casualties are counter-productive to winning hearts and minds. Maybe Obama is starting to recall his own warnings to this effect on the campaign trail. From the New York Times, March 10:

    U.S. Halted Some Raids in Afghanistan
    WASHINGTON — The commander of a secretive branch of America’s Special Operations forces last month ordered a halt to most commando missions in Afghanistan, reflecting a growing concern that civilian deaths caused by American firepower are jeopardizing broader goals there.

    The halt, which lasted about two weeks, came after a series of nighttime raids by Special Operations troops in recent months killed women and children, and after months of mounting outrage in Afghanistan about civilians killed in air and ground strikes. The order covered all commando missions except those against the highest-ranking leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, military officials said.

    American commanders in Afghanistan rely on the commando units to carry out some of the most delicate operations against militant leaders, and the missions of the Army’s Delta Force and classified Navy Seals units are never publicly acknowledged. But the units sometimes carry out dozens of operations each week, so any decision to halt their missions is a sign of just how worried military officials are that the fallout from civilian casualties is putting in peril the overall American mission in Afghanistan, including an effort to drain the Taliban of popular support.

    The account notes the recent UN report which “specifically blamed clandestine missions by commando units for contributing to a surge in civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2008.” A related story in the same issue:

    U.S. General Says Allies ‘Not Winning’ Afghan War
    PARIS — As the United States prepares to commit 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the commander of NATO and American forces there said on Monday that the coalition was “not winning” the war against the resurgent Taliban in parts of the country.

    Gen. David D. McKiernan’s assessment echoed that of President Obama who said in an interview that the United States was not winning the Afghan war and who raised the possibility of the American military reaching out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.

    In an interview published in the French newspaper Le Figaro on Monday, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, took the idea further, saying the West should accept a pro-Taliban leadership if Afghans choose such an administration in elections set for next August.

    “In Afghanistan, there will not be an exclusively military solution,” he said, adding: “We should accept the result of the forthcoming elections whatever it is.”

    He said there was “no question” of making Afghanistan a Western-style democracy.

    “If nationalist-minded Taliban come to power through the ballot-box and respect the constitution, that is the Afghans’ business,” he said. “What we reject is support for international jihad,” he said, using an Arabic term meaning struggle or holy war.