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.
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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:
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…
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:
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: