18 November 2008

Should the tacit Pakistan-US agreement on airstrikes be cause for concern?

My last blog entry raises an important question about the tacit agreement between Pakistan and the United States (reported in the Washington Post) on allowing coalition airstrikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). That question is, "Does this overt agreement change the cross-border raid dynamics significantly that we should be concerned about the overuse of airstrikes?" (i.e. if airstrikes are made lawful and somewhat institutionalized it is reasonable to fear overuse.) The short answer is no.

Although Pakistan and the USA do cooperate on many military matters, the geopolitical reality dictates that the activities of the partnership keep a low profile with the US mainly providing money and intelligence but refraining from boots on the ground. The reason for this dynamic rests within the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where 97% of the population is Muslim. In this War on Terror where the enemy is also Muslim, it is understandably trying for this secular society to cooperate with the wishes of the West. In the past, former president Musharraf had to attenuate his support of Washington for fear of political backlash; the current president Zadari too must act with care. It is this anti-American climate existing in a large portion of the population, which prevents the US from taking a more active role in the FATA. This allowance of predator strikes is a step forward for the US and a risky move for Islamabad. The US must make careful use of the agreement, for if it becomes publicised (perhaps following a mistaken civilian strike) that the US is acting with impunity in Pakistan, the public reaction could quickly force Zadari to put an end to any US incursions in his country. With this strong disincentive, we can expect Bush's 2004 order to continue being used with great care.

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