US ground assaults in Pakistan a double-edged sword (News Analysis)

September 12th, 2008 - 9:41 am ICT by IANS  

TalibanChicago, Sep 12 (IANS) The timing of the leak that the Bush administration authorized its Special Forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without Islamabad’s prior approval could not have been more unsettling for new President Asif Ali Zardari, who will find it practically impossible to balance between Washington and his country’s lawless tribal areas in the northwest.The New York Times, which broke the story on the seventh anniversary of 9/11, called it a “watershed” for the Bush administration after it failed to effectively combat the rising influence of Al Qaeda and Taliban operating from Pakistani soil.

The secret presidential authorization issued in July also underscores the low level of trust that the Bush administration has in the Pakistani government when it comes to combating Al Qaeda and Taliban. Although the order was issued while Pervez Musharraf was still Pakistan’s president, its disclosure has coincided uncomfortably close to Zardari’s rise. It is also as explicit a violation of a country’s sovereignty as possible without expressly calling it so.

It would have been interesting to speculate how far the Bush administration would have gone had it chosen to issue the order much earlier in its tenure. Less than two months before the Nov 4 presidential election in the US, the order has its natural limits.

Considering that the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee Barack Obama has taken a particularly hawkish position on Pakistan, it would be hard for him to reverse the order immediately in the event he is elected president. His Republican Party rival John McCain has been known to agree with almost everything Bush has done since announcing his war on terror in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

The Bush order is bound to put Pakistan’s military chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in an untenable situation. His comment that “no external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan,” seem superfluous considering the US is likely to be already engaged in such operations. Kayani said the military would defend his country’s sovereignty “at all costs” but that conviction is hard to follow through on given that President Zardari is likely to be under as much American influence as Musharraf.

It is quite a start for Zardari’s presidential career to have to confront what is being perceived by his own military chief as an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty as it is expected to be exploited by the Al Qaeda/Taliban combine. In the last months of his presidency Bush could not have been particularly bothered about such perceptions when early on in his term he had already declared a doctrine of preemption as the centerpiece of his foreign policy. Now he has even less to lose politically and diplomatically because he would not be around to deal with the consequences of his policy.

In all likelihood, the Bush administration waited for its ally Musharraf’s exit before allowing the order to come out. The logic appears to be quite simple. There is a new leader in Pakistan whom the administration may not have a great stake in or emotional attachment with. Before Nov 4 there is not just enough time for US-Pakistan relations to play out to in a manner that would affect Bush personally.

Most importantly, if in the process the administration ends up eliminating some very high profile Al Qaeda targets, including perhaps even Osama Bin Laden, it would give Bush a high note to conclude his presidency.

Bush’s order presents Pakistan’s new political establishment with a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can use the cover of Special Operations to neutralize the very forces which also threaten the country’s stability. On the other it runs the risk of standing diminished in front of its own people with the world’s only superpower carrying out ground assaults on its territory at will.

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