The good news is that U.S. President George W. Bush is not going to invade Iran before he leaves office. The bad news is that he is attacking Pakistan instead.
For years, the White House has issued urgent warnings about the threat from Iran at every opportunity, accompanied by the threat that "all options are on the table" if Iran didn't stop its alleged nuclear weapons program. Since we knew how Bush acted in the case of Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program, there was good reason to worry that he might actually carry out his threat.
Late last year, U.S. intelligence services deliberately undercut his case for war against Iran by releasing a joint assessment that concluded that Tehran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2004. That killed Bush's hopes of getting the American public to back an attack on Iran, and even the prospect of getting Russia to go along with sanctions against the Iranians pretty well died after the imbroglio in Georgia in August.
So the White House has gone entirely silent on Iran: no more warnings, no more threats. But about two months ago, according to information that was leaked just last week, Bush authorized U.S. military attacks against suspected supporters of the Taliban and al-Qaeda on Pakistani soil––without the permission of the Pakistan government.
Pakistan is a U.S. ally, even though the great majority of Pakistanis wish that it wasn't. There are few unbreakable rules in international affairs, but not attacking your ally is definitely one of them. Except if you are American, in which case it's okay, or so the White House appears to believe.
The latest incident, just after midnight on Monday morning, began when seven U.S. helicopter gunships and two troop-carrying Chinook helicopters landed near the Pakistani border in the Afghan province of Pakhtia. U.S. troops got out and tried to cross the border into Pakistan, presumably in search of some "terrorist" target.
According to local officials, Pakistani paramilitary troops manning a checkpoint fired into the air to warn off the Americans while local tribesmen took up defensive positions. On this occasion, the U.S. soldiers stopped. With nobody around to stop them, however, another American ground force attacked a target in Pakistan's South Waziristan province on September 4, and, according to local witnesses, killed about 20 people, including women and children.
The local witnesses may be exaggerating, but the fact that American troops carried out an act of war on Pakistan's territory without informing Islamabad, let alone getting its permission, is not disputed. And there have been other recent American attacks, involving missiles fired from the air at suspected terrorist targets, in which innocent Pakistani civilians have unquestionably been killed.
Pakistan's economy is tottering, its new democracy is shaky, and it has not done a very impressive job of keeping the Taliban supporters in the provinces bordering Afghanistan under control. (On the other hand, the United States has not done a very convincing job of beating the Taliban in Afghanistan, either.) But Pakistan is still a major regional power: it has twice as many people as Iran, and it definitely has nuclear weapons.
Using U.S. troops in Pakistan without permission is simply begging for trouble. Last week, the Pakistani army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, warned that "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country will be defended at all cost. No external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan." The White House may be hoping that the newly elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, will be pliable enough to let such things happen, but even if he were, the Pakistani army simply would not allow it.
The new Bush policy is stupid and futile: how can using U.S. troops on Pakistani soil do anything but drive more local people into the arms of the militants and turn the Pakistani government into America's enemy? But it is of a piece with the larger "Bush doctrine" that decrees the best way to deal with terrorism is to attack the countries where the terrorists live with military force.
The senior officers who now command the U.S. armed forces should know that this is not just wrong but hugely counterproductive. They were all taught in staff college that the best way to counter terrorism is by police work, intelligence gathering, and defensive security measures. Using military force just plays into the terrorists' hands. Indeed, it's the reaction that the terrorists are usually hoping for.
As part of their military education, American generals have even read the various memoirs, manuals and manifestos in which the leading practitioners of "urban guerilla warfare" and international terrorism laid down their strategies––and they almost always wanted to get the other side's army involved in the fight against them. Senior U.S. officers know that, and yet with a few brave exceptions who resigned, they have swallowed their professional pride and gone along with the Bush administration's unthinking belligerence.
There is one consolation. President Bush will be gone from office in four more months, so he probably doesn't have enough time left to turn Pakistan into a fully fledged enemy of the United States.