Two announcements this week suggest that the US is adopting a more aggressive strategy to fight the growing insurgency that spans the Afghan-Pakistani border.
On the heels of allegations last week that US ground forces conducted their first-ever operation in Pakistan, officials there said the US killed four foreign militants in Pakistan in a missile strike Monday. And President Bush announced Tuesday that US forces in Iraq would be reduced by 8,000 troops by February – and 4,500 additional troops sent to Afghanistan.
The events are an acknowledgment both of the severity of the situation in Afghanistan and the perceived inadequacy of US allies.
The strikes in Pakistan are a tacit admission that Pakistan's military has not been up to the task of rooting out terrorist leaders in its inhospitable border area. And Mr. Bush's "quiet surge" comes after repeated failed attempts to persuade NATO partners to shoulder more of the fighting load.
Yet it is an acknowledgment that the US, too, has comparatively neglected Afghanistan while focusing on Iraq. While the situation in Iraq has somewhat stabilized, security in Afghanistan has deteriorated this year to the point that militants are moving beyond suicide bombs to daring and effective attacks against coalition forces and the heart of the Afghan state:
•In August, Taliban fighters ambushed French special forces in Kabul Province – just 30 miles from the capital – killing 10 and wounding 21. The attack was unprecedented: Previously, the Taliban had avoided engaging coalition forces directly.
•Also last month, the Taliban laid siege to Camp Salerno, one of the largest US bases in Afghanistan, using relatively sophisticated tactics such as waves of suicide bombers intended to rip holes in the base's defensive perimeter.
•In June, Taliban militants blew open the gates to a prison in the southern city of Kandahar with a truck bomb, freeing as many as 400 Taliban inmates.
•In April, Taliban gunmen trying to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened fire at an Independence Day celebration, killing three.
•In January, Taliban suicide bombers broke into the Serena Hotel – Kabul's only five-star hotel and its most heavily guarded – killing six.
"It is generally accepted now across all [US] government agencies that the situation in Afghanistan has significantly worsened and has become quite dire," says Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp., a security consultancy.
The reasons are many, from faltering confidence in the Afghan government to the lack of a clear strategy. But perhaps the most cited reason, Mr. Jones says, "is every major [insurgent] group's ability to use Pakistan as a command and control hub."
In congressional testimony Wednesday, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said Pakistan and Afghanistan are "inextricably linked in a common insurgency." For several months he has warned that any terrorist attack carried out on American soil would likely originate from this border region.
US officials believe Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are in the area. The leader of the group that carried out the attacks on the Serena Hotel and President Karzai, Jalaluddin Haqqani, is also thought to be in Pakistan. Monday's airstrike reportedly killed a wife and a daughter of his.
The Pakistani Army's efforts to neutralize such terrorists have been stuttering at best, characterized by paroxysms of brief fighting followed by toothless cease-fires that allow militants to regroup.
The increased frequency of American strikes suggests that the US believes it must ramp up operations on both sides of the border as a stopgap. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the number of missile attacks in Pakistan has jumped from three in 2007 to 11 so far this year.
A recent report in a leading Pakistani daily, Dawn, claims that US forces are replicating in Pakistan a narrow strategy pioneered in Iraq: Picking off insurgent leaders one by one. The classic, broader counterinsurgency operations used in Iraq – clearing an area of terrorists, holding it with a large military presence, then building infrastructure – is not possible in Pakistan, which refuses to let US forces fight on its soil.
This is a political necessity. Pakistanis overwhelmingly resent what they see as historic US interference in their country. If Pakistan's fledgling civilian government is perceived as being subservient to the US – a reputation already dogging newly inaugurated President Asif Ali Zardari – it will incur the anger of its people. "It definitely will create difficulties for the new government," says Rashid Ahmad Khan, an analyst at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.
Already, news of the ground attack in South Waziristan, one of Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas, last week – in which 20 civilians were allegedly killed – has been met with outrage across the country.
"It's not justifiable by any means. It is an attack on our sovereignty. We're a nuclear power but are helpless before the US," says Sardar Muhammad, sitting in a bazaar in the frontier city of Peshawar.
Pakistan's response was to close the Afghan coalition's major overland supply route into Afghanistan, Pakistan's Torkham Pass, to NATO traffic for a day.
"This will tell how serious we are," Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar told Dawn Television.
• Ghulam Dastageer contributed from Peshawar, Pakistan.