Did We Just Invade Pakistan?

The history of the Afghan-Pakistan border has lessons for today

Over the last few years, the war along the Afghan-Pakistan border has progressed from scattered bombing incidents to almost daily reports of American incursions with Pakistanis returning fire—now, even without American troops having to enter Pakistani territory. Is the U.S. at war with Pakistan? If history is any guide, the answer is a resounding “not yet.”

The U.S. has launched attacks on al Qaeda and militant leaders in Pakistan since shortly after September 11, 2001. Whenever they could identify a known leader, or “person of significance,” an unidentified missile would blow up a compound, and blame would fall on the U.S. One of the earliest was a 2004 incident, in which the Pashtun tribal elder Nek Muhammed died in an alleged Predator missile strike. Since then, numerous unidentified missiles assumed to come from orbiting drones have exploded in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. The use of drone-fired missiles is so popular—they are considered “clean,” inexpensive, and relatively low-risk by foreign policy experts—that reports of their usage are almost common (including one missile strike that barely missed Al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri).

After a recent rule change authorizing cross border raids, U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war in Afghanistan, has supposedly attempted two incursions into Pakistani territory: a pre-dawn raid on September 3, and an unconfirmed report of a pair of helicopters driven back by ground fire from the Pakistani Army. The September 3 raid was the first since a quietly reported “hot pursuit” in 2006 that found several special operations solders inside Pakistan, pursuing militants who had crossed the border into Afghanistan to launch attacks.

These events have gained a lot of attention—whether hyperventilating essays by Christopher Hitchens or analysts’ dour predictions of increased winter violence, concern seems to be at a fever pitch.

The depth of this concern is unwarranted. Missing from the excited calls for another “Awakening” movement is an understanding of Pakistan’s history before it was Pakistan. Tribal unrest, even Islamist-fueled tribal unrest, is a regular and cyclical occurrence. While it presents a danger that must be addressed, the recurrence of tribal unrest in the FATA does not warrant the panic currently gripping U.S. policy circles.

For well over 100 years, the central government that establishes some measure of control over the Pashtun tribal areas—whether British or Pakistani—has been caught in a cycle of violence and truces with the tribes along the Frontier. Tribal conflicts, often driven by radical and charismatic Islamic fundamentalists, have characterized this century of violence.

In 1897, a British fort in Malakand faced down a rampaging horde of 10,000 warriors led by Mullah Mastun, the “Mad Mullah of Malakand,” who roused his troops by proclaiming the Prophet’s desire to rid their homelands of the infidel British. After much violence, the British put down the insurrection, only to see another charismatic leader, the Faqir of Ipi, emerge in 1937. The British never defeated him, and 40,000 troops played a violent game of hide and seek in the mountains of Waziristan all the way until Partition in 1947. The Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 featured the Amir of Afghanistan inciting these same Pashtun tribesmen to abandon their posts as British foot soldiers to fight for a free Pashtun Afghanistan.

Just after Partition, the government of Afghanistan again stirred up the border tribesmen, attempting to split them from the newly formed Pakistan. In the 1970s, as the Balochi tribesmen further south were agitating for independence, the Pashtun tribes began to rebel against the central government in solidarity. Tribal violence in 1980s and 1990s was largely directed at Kashmir and a war-torn Afghanistan; only after September 11, when the U.S. supposedly pressured Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf to take action against the tribal groups in the FATA, did this violence become a pressing matter of American national security.

Unfortunately, this sort of context is missing from almost all media discussions of the current spate of tribal violence. While it’s unrealistic to demand a detailed history of conflict cycles in every article on this topic, some recognition of how “normal” these sorts of uprisings really are would make an effective deterrent to the near panic now inching its way into the White House.

That panic has dramatic consequences. U.S. raids into Pakistan are a fool’s game if not carried out with the utmost care: the only entity more despised in Pakistan than Musharraf is the U.S. Reports that drone attacks are “shots in the dark” are not encouraging; neither was that September 3rd raid, which was sloppy in almost every way.

Normally, pre-dawn raids surprise the targeted compound’s occupants while they’re asleep, making a capture or killing much easier. But this raid happened during Ramadan, when people rise long before dawn to eat and drink before their daylight fast begins; nearby villagers rushed toward the waiting helicopters, shouting slogans of protest. Reports that the raid also might have caused upwards of twenty civilian deaths highlights the ham-fistedness of the move. As viscerally appealing as such actions may be back home—Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has promised to strike targets inside Pakistan if need be—it is impossible for the U.S. to come out of these raids looking good.

From this follows a fundamental tenet of counterinsurgency: a population-centric strategy. Current U.S. strategy does not focus on the FATA’s people; it only tries to kill its leaders. These routine insertions also carry the risk of American soldiers dying at the hands of the Pakistani Army—an event that would almost assuredly make matters worse. If the U.S. is to regularly violate Pakistani territory and preemptively strike targets suspected of having launched cross-border attacks, then the rules of the game change. The U.S. loses the right to complain about those militant raids; the danger of killing the wrong individual (or even tens of innocent civilians) assumes a whole new political dimension. Unless the U.S. has negotiated some sort of secret memorandum with the Pakistani government, these raids represent nothing more than a declaration of war. That is surely a path no one wants to walk.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at Registan.net.