Friday, December 11, 2009

Combating Al Qaeda at the End of 2009

Recent intelligence estimates the Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan at only about 100 operatives. The same intel suggests that several hundred Al Qaeda dwell just across the border in Pakistan. Our war in Afghanistan appears to be against the Taliban, yet Al Qaeda is largely considered the group more hostile to American interests, and of course was the group America sought to eliminate for conducting the 9/11 attacks. We have declared war in Afghanistan and President Obama has recently announced an expanded military presence in that country. Yet, all signs point to Pakistan being the country that is home to our primary enemy.

In a recent contribution to the New York Times, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari expresses the sentiment his government and the Pakistani public share against having foreign troops enter to combat extremists. Entering Pakistan with traditional military forces has not been an option and seemingly will never become one. President Obama is in the precarious position of needing quick success in the region without violating this Pakistani demand to respect their sovereignty. Obama and his key aides, including National Security Advisor General James L. Jones, have met with Pakistani leaders in recent weeks to demand that progress be made, implying that if it is not, the U.S. will be forced to take care of Al Qaeda in Pakistan on its own.

What then will be done to combat Al Qaeda in Pakistan at the present time? The U.S. will continue the CIA Predator drone program in Pakistan, which it does not officially acknowledge for fear of greater backlash from the Pakistani citizenry. President Obama has been even more supportive of this program than President Bush was in terms of amount of strikes authorized. Indeed, Obama is said to have authorized a strike last August that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, along with several family members and body guards. The next step with the program would be to expand it from the semi-autonomous tribal areas along Afghanistan’s eastern border to the more populated and governed Pakistani region of Balochistan below Afghanistan’s southern border.

The Predator drone program is controversial because it is unacknowledged, because the Pakistani press has reported several hundred civilian casualties have resulted (likely exaggerated), and because it is seen as a counterterrorism tactic rather than a counterinsurgency tactic and therefore could create more militants and resentment as quickly as targets are eliminated. Whether or not this last point is true remains hotly contested and perhaps cannot be answered with any degree of precision. Other sources of controversy surrounding the program include the extent to which Blackwater/Xe operatives have been actively involved in the program and how much the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) supports U.S. efforts by proposing targets, offering bases for drone take-offs, etc.

Obama and the American public seem to appreciate the ability of the drones to combat key extremists while keeping U.S. forces out of harm’s way. When news breaks that a key insurgent leader has been killed by such a strike, there is cause to be thrilled, as such a successes are few and far between. In fact, just days ago, a high-ranking Al Qaeda figure was said to be killed by a drone aircraft in South Waziristan in northwest Pakistan. If true, “it would be the first time coalition forces had killed a top Al Qaeda figure in almost a year.” It seems, then, that this program will be continued into the near future. All the while, the CIA and White House spokesmen, along with Pakistani government officials, will continue to publically state the hard line position that such drone attacks do not occur and will not be supported.

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