Yesterday, investigative reporter/author Bob Woodward‘s Obama’s Wars made its highly anticipated debut in bookstores. The book highlights more of what many of us already knew – that the government is deeply divided over the current Afghanistan policy (cough, Stanley McChrystal‘s interview with Rolling Stone). According to a book review by the New York Times,
Although the internal divisions described have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known and offers new details. [Vice President] Mr. Biden called [Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan] Mr. Holbrooke “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met,” although he “may be the right guy for the job.” A variety of administration officials expressed scorn for James L. Jones, the retired Marine general who is national security adviser, while he referred to some of the president’s other aides as “the water bugs” or “the Politburo.”
But perhaps the more startling revelation – or at least the one that is garnering news headlines this week – is the allegation that the CIA is running a 3,000-strong Afghan army to carry out clandestine operations in not only Afghanistan, but also across the border in Pakistan. According to the Washington Post review,
The CIA created, controls and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man paramilitary army of local Afghans, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. Woodward describes these teams as elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.
In the words of Scooby Doo, Ruh roh.
NPR‘s JJ Sutherland, also struck by this revelation, further confirmed the existence of these Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams with two anonymous U.S. officials. And Reuters, in its blog Now or Never, noted that U.S. officials not only confirmed their existence, they “bragged about it.” CNN quoted one official as saying, “You’re talking about one of the finest Afghan fighting forces, which has made major contributions to security and stability.”
We have heard time and time again that the key to stability in Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. And so far, the U.S. has preferred drones in the air versus boots on the ground, walking a tenuous tightrope above Pakistan’s sovereignty. Drones have obviously been immensely unpopular, and reports indicate that the CIA has conducted 20 drone strikes in September alone, “the most ever in a single month and more than twice its monthly average.” [For more on drone strikes, see New America Foundation’s comprehensive coverage and map].
The recent rise of drone strikes illustrates the U.S.’s frustration with Pakistan, and have resulted in increasing efforts to take matters into their own hands. Media outlets reported that NATO helicopters launched three attacks in Pakistani territory this past Friday. According to Al Jazeera, “Sergeant Matt Summers, an ISAF spokesman, confirmed on Sunday that the helicopters had crossed into Pakistan in pursuit of fighters. He did not say which countries’ forces were involved, but the United States is the only coalition member that uses Apaches.” Not surprisingly, the Pakistani government responded with a “very angry” statement threatening to “consider response options” unless ISAF took “corrective measures.” [Insert Team America Hans Blitz reference here.]
The recent revelation in Woodward’s book is yet another sign of this more aggressive approach towards Pakistan, but it holds very problematic ramifications. First, training local Afghans to fight across the border in Pakistan is not only a challenge to national sovereignty, it also bears an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman noted,
…that same history also shows that the U.S. can’t control those proxy forces. Splits within the mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal (and the end of CIA cash) led to Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, which paved the way for the rise of the Taliban. One of those CIA-sponsored fighters was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a key U.S. adversary in Afghanistan. And during the 2001 push to Kabul, a Northern Alliance military commander, Abdul Rashid Dostum, killed hundreds and maybe even thousands of Taliban prisoners. He was on the CIA’s payroll at the time.
Moreover, as Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin noted, Woodward’s book “sheds new light on the Obama administration’s vast outreach to the Pakistani civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari,” considering its war effort contingent on the success and survival of this government. This, to me, is why this U.S. aggressive security policy is so problematic – on one hand, the administration has a vested interest in the survival of Zardari’s government. On the other hand, these security-related decisions that ultimately challenge Pakistani sovereignty and fan the flames of anti-American sentiment only further undermine this civilian regime.
Regardless of the Pakistani government’s “very angry” statements following helicopter attacks and repeated drone strikes, the public sees the state as complicit in this U.S. policy, or, at the very least, too weak to truly challenge this strategy. In a country suffering from a recent flood disaster, a weakened economy, and political volatility, such policies ultimately breed further instability and rumors of regime change. The U.S. has often said the stability of Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. But that statement goes both ways.