Last year, President Obama and his administration ruled out sending U.S. ground forces into Pakistan. Instead, the White House said, America’s clandestine operations there would be waged solely by remote-control — with Predator and Reaper drones. “There is a red line,” said special envoy Richard Holbrooke. “And the red line is unambiguous and stated publicly by the Pakistani government over and over again: No foreign troops on our soil.”
Yet today, three U.S. soldiers were killed and two more were wounded by an improvised bomb in Pakistan. The area was known “as a Taliban stronghold,” the New York Times notes. But the “Pakistani military had declared cleared of the militants.”
It’s another sign that America’s once-small, once-secret war in Pakistan is growing bigger, more conventional, and busting out into the open. The U.S. Air Force now conducts flights over Pakistani soil. U.S. security contractors operate in the country. U.S. strikes are growing larger, more frequent, and more deadly; the latest attack reportedly involved 17 missiles and killed as many as 29 people. Billions of dollars in U.S. aid goes to Islamabad. And now, U.S. forces are dying in Pakistan.
Which begs the question: When are we going to start treating this conflict in Pakistan as a real war — with real oversight and real disclosure about what the hell our people are really doing there? Maybe at one point, this conflict could’ve been swept under the rug as some classified CIA op. But that was billions of dollars and hundreds of Pakistani and American lives ago.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, the American forces were there merely “to attend the inauguration ceremony of a school for girls that had recently been renovated with U.S. humanitarian assistance.” These guys were merely trainers part of the small cadre — maybe a hundred or so — of U.S. special forces in Pakistan, beefing up the local Frontier Corps’ counterinsurgency skills.
As the Long War Journal notes, “The soldiers are not supposed to conduct military operations alongside the Frontier Corps units.”
But according to Washington Post columnist and de facto government spokesperson David Ignatius, “the improved U.S.-Pakistani cooperation extends to other activities [beyond training] as well. A senior Pentagon official said Tuesday that in Bajaur, a tribal area bordering Afghanistan, the two countries’ military operations were ‘much more coordinated.’”
American forces have found themselves in combat within Pakistan’s borders before. Back in 2001, a pair of Rangers were killed in a Blackhawk crash in Pakistan. In 2008, a raid by U.S. special operations troops killed as many as 20 Pakistanis.
There are also a host of American private security contractors in Pakistan. Their exact roles are murky. But their presence is well-known, and deeply controversial. Which is why the Pakistani Taliban not only took credit for today’s bombing — but also claimed that the slain U.S. troops were, in fact, guns-for-hire. “The Americans killed were members of the Blackwater group,” a Taliban spokesman tells Dawn.
One operation the U.S. contractors are most certainly involved in: the drone strikes on suspected militant camps. There have been 12 reported attacks just in 2010 — a huge increase over last year’s rate of about one strike per week. And the drone show no signs of letting up. Five aircraft supposedly participated in the most recent attack. If press accounts are accurate, the drone unleashed almost their full load of missiles. Each Repear unmanned aircraft carried four Hellfire missiles. This attack reportedly included 17 or more Hellfire hits.
It is fair to point out that the ops in Pakistan are more tightly tied to a shooting war than many others, but does that mean we should take them and shine a bunch of bright lights on them? … There is plenty of oversight operating where it belongs in classified briefings… The political environment in Pakistan is delicate as Hell so we properly tread lightly. A bunch of breathless stories about the mere possibility that we are cooperating more w/ Pakistan or that heaven forbid the evil Blackwater mercenaries are helping load drones doesn’t make doing any good there easier… It is smart and a proper use of Special Forces. Now let’s stop making their jobs harder by acting like something nefarious is going on.
I hear that. And if this were some other, relatively small-scale SF operation (cough Yemen cough), I’d agree 100%. But there has been too much cash spent and too many lives lost in this mission to keep on operating as if it can all be kept behind the black door. The Pakistanis know what we’re up to, and our secrecy is only fueling the paranoia and conspiracy theories — not to mention depriving Americans of their right to know how their blood and treasure is being spent.
UPDATE 2: U.S. Central Command says the three troops killed today weren’t trigger-pullers. They were part of the military’s cadre of nation-builders, known as “civil affairs.” A CENTCOM statement notes that “the service members were assigned to the Office of the Defense Representative, Pakistan to conduct civil affairs-related training at the invitation of the Government of Pakistan.”
In other words, these soldiers weren’t involved in some high-speed, secret squirrel operation that needed to be kept quiet. They were part of a growing U.S. counterinsurgency in Pakistan. A widening war.
UPDATE 3: Rusty Shackleford over at the Jawa Report also thinks I’m off-base. “Admitting that we have troops on the ground engaged in combat roles would — literally — lead to a civil war in Pakistan. As it is, the Pakistani people tolerate – barely — the notion that foreign troops are there in a support mission,” he writes. “It is a catch-22, ironic, and duplicitous: but calling this a war is the same thing as losing it. Me, I’m willing to be called two-faced for sake of winning a war. Those that prefer consistency over victory are misguided.”
Captain Liz Mathias, on the other hand, thinks I’m on the right track. She writes in the comments:
Noah, I think you’re point about disclosure is more than valid, especially given the propaganda edge covert US operations in Pakistan give the TTP. As TTP routinely links Blackwater with large-scale attacks, they’ve built a strong perception that any foreign invovlement, official, covert or contract, occurs without accountability. Just as “Blackwater” didn’t go away when they changed their name, the real participation of US forces in Pakistan doesn’t go away if we don’t talk about it.
Obviously, she’s writing in a personal capacity here. But it’s worth noting that, until recently, Captain Mathias was a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition in Kabul.
[Photo: U.S. Army Central]
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- U.S. Commandos Hit Pakistan; Islamabad Howls
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