MARGARET WARNER: For months, the U.S. military and the Bush administration have grown increasingly frustrated with the safe haven afforded Taliban and al-Qaida guerrillas in Pakistan. Now that haven may be a little less safe.
The New York Times reported today that President Bush, two months ago, approved orders allowing U.S. special operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without prior approval from Islamabad.
Last Wednesday, U.S. special forces raided a village in Pakistan, killing several alleged al-Qaida fighters. That came on the heels of an increasing number of U.S. missile strikes by unmanned drones in recent months on targets in Pakistan’s tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan.
Yesterday, Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, denounced the ground raid, and said, “No external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan.”
But, yesterday, in Washington, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen spoke of Afghanistan and Pakistan as one battleground.
ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, Joints Chiefs Chairman: These two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them. You have all seen the challenges we have faced, particularly in the south and east, as Taliban and al-Qaida fighters grow bolder and more sophisticated. You have seen the willingness of these disparate groups of fighters to better collaborate and communicate from safe havens in Pakistan.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on all this, we get two views, Robert Grenier formerly headed the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Earlier, he was the CIA station chief in Islamabad. He helped plan the CIA operation against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan after 9/11. He’s now with the consulting firm Kroll. And Vikram Singh worked on counterinsurgency and peacekeeping — peacekeeping operations at the Pentagon during the Bush administration. He’s now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. He just returned from Afghanistan.
Welcome to you both.
Safe havens along the border
MARGARET WARNER: Vikram Singh, why has it come to this now, nearly seven years after launching the war in Afghanistan?
VIKRAM SINGH, Center for a New American Security: Well, Margaret, I think it was somewhat inevitable that it would come to this.
For seven years, we, the U.S. government, basically counted on the Musharraf regime in Pakistan to try to deal with the situation in the border regions, where al-Qaida and the Taliban find a great deal of sanctuary.
Now, with, first, the violence in Afghanistan reaching such a high level, the highest death toll so far since 2001 for U.S. forces, it's become intolerable. Secondly, with President Musharraf gone, that political imperative to not rock the boat for Musharraf has passed. And it seems that the United States is willing to press a little harder.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, that the situation in Afghanistan had become so intolerable that this was the only course?
ROBERT GRENIER, Former CIA Official: Well, I think that the situation in Pakistan has become progressively less and less tolerable.
But I think that we have to remember that, even if we removed tomorrow the safe haven across the border in Pakistan, we would still have a major insurgency on the Afghan side of the border.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, elaborate on that. Do you mean that this safe haven is really not that much of a source of the instability in Afghanistan, the attacks on NATO forces, the attacks on U.S. forces?
ROBERT GRENIER: Well, it's a safe haven, and it certainly is a source of instability. But it's a safe haven for a number of different parties.
It is a safe haven for the Afghan Taliban, who are the people who are responsible for the major insurgency inside Afghanistan. And that is largely self-sustaining within Afghanistan. Obviously, they do benefit from a safe haven. But I don't think that we should overexaggerate it.
Secondly, it is a safe haven for the so-called Pakistani Taliban, the followers of the TarikiÂ Taliban, sort of the Pakistani offshoot, if you will, of the Taliban.
And, thirdly, it is a safe haven for al-Qaida. And I think that we need to maintain a laser-like focus on al-Qaida, because that is a threat not just in the immediate region, but in the U.K., United States and beyond.
Benefits of commando raids
MARGARET WARNER: What can be achieved with these commando raids on the ground that can't be achieved with these missile strikes launched from the unmanned drones?
VIKRAM SINGH: Well, I think there's actually a lot of benefits to doing commando raids over missile strikes.
But let me just point out that neither constitutes a strategy. They are both a very limited technique that is designed to basically get important high -- you know, high-ranking al-Qaida or Taliban officials. They are not achieving any significant strategic aims beyond that, in terms of helping the population and countering the insurgency in a more broad way.
With a raid, you are less likely to inflict significant civilian casualties, which has been a major problem.
MARGARET WARNER: With the airstrikes.
VIKRAM SINGH: Right.
Also, with a raid, you are more likely to be able to have more intelligence collection come out of an operation. That is to say, you can capture, rather than just kill. So, there are definite advantages to raids in that -- in that narrow -- in that narrow sense.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with those advantages? And what are the disadvantages?
ROBERT GRENIER: Well, I agree with those tactical advantages, particularly in situations where there is a great advantage to capturing, as opposed to killing, to capturing documents, computers, that sort of thing. There is a tremendous advantage to having boots on the ground.
Similarly, it enables you to distinguish among targets. And, therefore, in certain tactical situations, it can keep you from -- or it can help to limit the number of civilian casualties.
I would also add, though, that, in certain situations, if you get yourself into trouble, you are suddenly surrounded by howling tribesmen, you can end up having to kill a great many more civilians trying to fight your way back out. So, I think that that is something that we have to posit there as well.
But, I think, as opposed to the tactical advantages, there are also some strategic disadvantages that Vikram was just referring to. It further radicalizes the area, and it makes it much more difficult for the Pakistanis to succeed in the long-term objective there, which is pacification of that area.
New relationship with Pakistan?
MARGARET WARNER: Had the U.S. administration, though, reached the point of not believing that the Pakistani administration was really interested in getting to the root of this?
VIKRAM SINGH: The Pakistani administration has not ever been 100 percent interested in getting to the root of this. Pakistan...
MARGARET WARNER: Well, that's what many have said, but is it...
MARGARET WARNER: ... a sea change in the attitude of the U.S. government toward the Pakistani government?
VIKRAM SINGH: I actually don't think it a sea change in our attitude. I do not think we want to, you know, undermine the stability of the Pakistani government. We do want to help the Pakistani government deal with what is a threat to Pakistan, as well as to Afghanistan, as well as to the world in the form of international terrorism, that is being -- you know, is finding safe harbor there.
But I do think that, given the way things are going in Afghanistan, Admiral Mullen basically said the other day in Congress that, you know, we can't afford to do nothing. And while there is an Afghan Taliban that is a nasty insurgency, it has a lot of its logistic bases and has a lot of its training reach back and a lot of capabilities in Pakistan.
And, basically, this is one insurgency with different various areas. But it's -- overall, Pakistan and Afghanistan kind of do need to be viewed, as Chairman Mullen said, as -- as one big problem, an insurgency's and international terrorists' safe haven that happen to cross a border.
MARGARET WARNER: So, what are we to make of the Pakistani government at least official objections to this?? One, can we be sure that, in fact, there hasn't been some tacit or explicit approval given? But, secondly, does it threaten to destabilize this new government in Pakistan?
ROBERT GRENIER: Yes, I think that, under any circumstances, the Pakistani government is going to have to express a certain amount of reserve, obviously, about foreign forces, particularly when you are talking about U.S. boots on the ground, as opposed to, say, missile strikes.
And, here, I mean, we're -- we're trying to read tea leaves. We're trying to read between the lines. And I can tell, from experience, that most of what you read in the press is at least half-wrong.
MARGARET WARNER: ... say that.
ROBERT GRENIER: I know, present company excepted.
But I think that -- that the Pakistanis are very concerned about this, because I think that we could potentially reach agreement with the Pakistanis on what would be appropriate criteria for those sorts of cross-border strikes, whatever form they take.
But I suspect that our criteria are going to be somewhat different from the Pakistani criteria. And they are not at all confident that we are going to fully take their equities into account.
Future of border strategy unknown
MARGARET WARNER: So, where can -- where could this lead? I mean, are we on a slippery slope to greater ground force engagement?
VIKRAM SINGH: I mean, I don't know if it is necessarily a slippery slope. It depends on what that ground force engagement is doing and what the Pakistani viewpoint towards that, in cooperation with our engagement, happens to be.
We don't know what happened on that aircraft carrier 10 or so days ago in the Indian Ocean, where all of our senior top military brass met all of their senior top military brass. But, you know, the timing is -- the timing is interesting.
What we would really hope to see, though, if we have American boots on the ground, in the forms of special forces team or CIA operatives, would be them and the Pakistanis working together with local tribesmen and others who are anti-Taliban and anti-al-Qaida.
There are a lot of losers from the Taliban, al-Qaida, you know, resurgence in that area, a lot of people that would really rather not be under the thumb of the Taliban and al-Qaida. And those people would except help to try to push back al-Qaida and the Taliban. I don't think we're near seeing that. But that would be more what we would want to see.
MARGARET WARNER: Fairly briefly, do you agree that's the -- that would be the broader strategic -- broader strategy that should be pursued?
ROBERT GRENIER: That is the broader strategy that should be pursued, but it has to be pursued with the Pakistanis.
I can't foresee in the -- certainly in the short or even the medium term, a situation analogous to what we are seeing in western Iraq, where you have local people aligning themselves with U.S. forces. I just don't think that is in the cards in Pakistan.
And -- and, further, when I hear Admiral Mullen talk about a -- a common insurgency on both sides of the border, suggesting, somehow, that we should ignore the existence of that border, that makes me very concerned.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there.
Robert Grenier, Vikram Singh, thank you.
VIKRAM SINGH: Thank you.