Just one day after General Stanley McChrystal's report on the way forward in Afghanistan was leaked to the press, the Obama administration is floating the idea of expanding the U.S. air campaign in Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda instead of ramping up forces in neighboring Afghanistan. From the Associated Press:
The White House is considering expanding counterterror operations in Pakistan to refocus on eliminating al-Qaida instead of mounting a major military escalation in Afghanistan.
Two senior administration officials said Monday that the renewed fight against the terrorist organization could lead to more missile attacks on Pakistan terrorist havens by unmanned U.S. spy planes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made. ...
The two senior administration officials said Monday that one option would be to step up the use of missile-armed unmanned spy drones over Pakistan that have killed scores of militants over the last year.
The armed drones could contain al-Qaida in a smaller, if more remote area, and keep its leaders from retreating back into Afghanistan, one of the officials said.
Most U.S. military officials have preferred a classic counterinsurgency mission to keep al-Qaida out of Afghanistan by defeating the Taliban and securing the local population.
However, one senior White House official said it's not clear that the Taliban would welcome al-Qaida back into Afghanistan. The official noted that it was only after the 9/11 attacks that the United States invaded Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban in pursuit of al-Qaida.
There are two very, very big problems with this idea. First, the U.S. air campaign in Pakistan has been effective; over the past two months alone, three senior al Qaeda leaders and a senior Taliban leader are thought to have been killed during the strikes. But, despite chest-thumping reports from senior U.S. officials, al Qaeda has not be reduced to a handful of leaders seeking shelter in the caves of Pakistan's tribal agencies. The attacks have been effective in forcing al Qaeda to deal with leadership issues and focus efforts on force protection, but the attacks themselves will not defeat al Qaeda.
Second, the unnamed U.S. officials are assuming that the Afghan Taliban have little to do with al Qaeda. But if you listen to what senior Taliban leaders say, the groups are closely integrated. Here is what Mullah Sangeen Zadran, one of the most senior military commanders of the Haqqani Network and the shadow governor of Paktika province, had to say during an interview with As Sahab, which, by the way, is al Qaeda's propaganda arm. Sangeen is the Taliban leader that has custody Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who left his post at the end of June.
As-Sahab: How is your relation with your brothers in Al-Qaeda and what is the level of cooperation between you?
Mawlawi Sangeen: All praise is for Allah, Al-Qaeda and Taliban all are Muslims and we are united by the brotherhood of Islam. We do not see any difference between Taliban and Al- Qaeda, for we all belong to the religion of Islam. Sheikh Usama has pledged allegiance to Amir Al-Mumineen (Mulla Muhammad Umar) and has reassured his leadership again and again. There is no difference between us, for we are united by Islam and the Sharia governs us. Just as the infidels are one people, so are the Muslims, and they will never succeed in disuniting the Mujahideen, saying that there is Al- Qaeda and Taliban, and that Al-Qaeda are terrorists and extremists. They use many such words, but by the Grace of Allah, it will not affect our brotherly relationship. Now they are also trying to disunite the Taliban, saying that there are two wings, one extremist and another moderate. However, the truth is that we are all one and are united by Islam.
The use of Predator strikes is a tactic to help defeat al Qaeda. Focusing efforts on al Qaeda alone in Pakistan at the expense of ignoring groups like the Haqqani Network is a losing strategy.