Our secret war in Pakistan
By Richard Engel
U.S. military officials don’t talk about our secret war in Pakistan.
Don’t even ask, I was told, on U.S. military bases in Afghanistan at Bagram and Jalalabad.
Don’t ask about the remotely-controlled American drones armed with missiles that are now hunting across the Pakistani border, searching through the mountain peaks, valleys and dusty villages inside Pakistan for the leaders of a few dozen networks of al-Qaida fighters, Taliban militants, warlords, weapons smugglers and opium traffickers.
And certainly don’t ask about the troops on bases here in Afghanistan who don’t wear uniforms, have long beards (so they can better blend in during covert operations), tattoos and don’t mingle with regular soldiers.
They eat in their own chow halls, plan their own missions and don’t talk much. They don’t talk at all to the media. They’re the men who have been called in to cross into Pakistan when the drones can’t get deep enough to find and kill their targets.
They are elite Special Operations Forces, the most-highly trained and covert of the U.S. military. They are America’s ghost warriors. According to Pakistani villagers who claim to have witnessed their operations, the "Special Ops" work in small teams, fast roping out of helicopters, air assaulting their objective before the enemy can re-group.
Their strengths are rapid violence, stealth, mobility and surprise. The Special Operations Forces don’t receive much attention or credit in the media, but they’re leading America’s secret war inside Pakistan, at least for now.
The Army Times, a military newspaper, recently reported that the U.S. will temporarily halt ground incursions into Pakistan. The newspaper quoted an unnamed Pentagon official as saying, "We are now working with the Pakistanis to make sure that those types of ground-type insertions do not happen, at least for a period of time to give them an opportunity to do what they claim they are desiring to do." The newspaper said the halt did not apply to the incursions by drones.
While details of American operations in Pakistan are sparse, several commanders have helped me understand the American motivation for the raids.
They say the cross-border incursions are necessary because the Pakistani government has failed to contain Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. Pakistan’s tribal region – 10,000 square miles along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan – has become a no-man’s-land where radical militants train, equip, rest, regroup, refit, plan and launch attacks on American troops in Afghanistan and on the Pakistani government in Islamabad.
Pakistan has taken some action. In August, the Pakistani military launched an offensive in Bajaur, a militant stronghold near the border. The Pakistani army is also building alliances with tribal leaders who have turned on the Taliban and al-Qaida.
But Pakistan’s actions have yet to produce significant results, according to tribal elders, witnesses, and the U.S. military. The border region remains a lawless insurgent safe haven that the United States has decided it can no longer tolerate.
From the U.S. perspective, the military had to act in Pakistan, a U.S. ally, because the Pakistani government and military could not, or would not, crack down on Islamic radicals.
Sipping cups of green tea in a villa in Islamabad, I recently spoke for three hours with a Pakistani military official, who also worked for several years in his country’s intelligence service, to get the other side of the story. He argued passionately that both Pakistan and the United States share the same goal – to wipe out the dangerous radicals – but that the U.S. cross-border incursions are counter-productive.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Pakistan has deployed 120,000 troops along its border with Afghanistan, stationed at 1,000 posts. He compared Pakistan’s force to just over 30,000 U.S. troops at about 100 posts on the Afghan side of the border.
"You see where the insufficiency of forces is?" he asked. "I don’t understand why [the Americans] don’t just kill the militants on their side of the border. They show us videos as proof of militants crossing into Pakistan. Why don’t they just sort them out there, in Afghanistan, instead of making videos?’"
I asked the Pakistani official about the U.S. cross-border raids. Do they help? Don’t they target the same people who plot attacks against Pakistan? Unlike the U.S. military, he had a lot to say.
The official claimed there have been about 50 drone incursions into Pakistan since this summer, along with roughly 10 "physical incursions." He claimed the raids had killed "several hundred" civilians and were causing panic in the tribal areas.
"The villagers hear the buzzing [of the drones] and are terrified. They are scared to have weddings, funerals or any social gatherings, afraid they will be blown up by the drones," he said.
The official also claimed the U.S. strikes undermine the Pakistani military’s ability to operate in the tribal areas. It’s a problem of logistics and terrain, he explained.
The few roads in the mountainous border area run through villages. Since the Pakistani military lacks aircraft, the roads are the army’s main supply line. The official argued that if the villagers, angered by American air strikes, turn on the Pakistani military – who are after all U.S. allies – they could cut off Pakistani troops.
"We may have to pull them out completely if [the American incursions] continue. We cannot leave the troops there, if we are cut off from supplies and can’t support them."
While the United States and Pakistan argue over the incursions, conditions in border villages are rapidly deteriorating. The mountain town of Swat was once known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, a resort where Pakistanis vacationed to escape the bustle of Islamabad and Karachi. Today it is a battle zone.
According to a Pakistani military spokesman, in Swat Valley Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have burned down 111 girls schools, destroyed 37 government buildings, blown up 29 bridges, incapacitated the main power plant and cut the gas supply. Villagers are often completely without power. Schools that haven’t been burned down don’t operate.
Not surprisingly, more than a quarter million refugees have escaped areas like Swat and Bajour. At least 20,000 refugees have crossed into Afghanistan. Aid workers say tens of thousands more may be coming.
What can be done?
A senior U.S. military official told me he’d heard Pakistan’s argument – leave us alone, we’ll handle it, stay out – a thousand times, but had yet to see results.
But what can the U.S. actually do?
It’s difficult to fight a secret war, especially here. The Special Operations Forces must fight in the mountains, far away from their bases in Afghanistan, against a battle-hardened enemy funded by the opium trade.
Since U.S. troops must operate covertly, they also can’t afford to lose a single man, fearing the enemy would drag his body Somalia-style through the streets, exposing their presence. The Americans also can’t leave anything behind, no equipment, no bags of MREs, no tracks, no trace they were there fighting America’s newest, most secret war.
Both American and Pakistani officials seem to agree that the only long-term solution to combating the militants in the border region is through better coordination. For now, however, there’s little trust between the two sides, and suspicions are growing.