Bush’s third war

President Bush will leave office without concluding either of the two wars he initiated after 9/11. Now, in the waning months of his administration, the president seems intent on expanding his “global war on terror” still farther. To the existing fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, he is adding a third: Pakistan.

Eclipsed perhaps only by Iraq, Pakistan ranks in the very top tier of the Bush administration’s foreign policy blunders. Even as it vowed following 9/11 to never compromise with evil, the administration wasted no time in forging an alliance with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the army general who seized power in 1999 through a military coup. Although Musharraf was anything but a democrat, Bush proclaimed him a close friend and ally. Washington quickly began funneling military and economic aid toward Islamabad, the total since 2001 exceeding $13 billion.

Unfortunately, Musharraf was not only a dictator, he was incompetent. Two themes defined his presidency: a gradual erosion of domestic legitimacy that paralyzed and then doomed his regime, and a steady erosion of Pakistan’s already shaky control over its frontier provinces bordering Afghanistan. For Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters ousted from their Afghan sanctuaries, the Pakistani Northwest Frontier became a refuge in which to establish training camps and support areas. Although U.S. civilian and military officials pushed and prodded Musharraf to crack down on this Taliban and Al Qaeda presence, little effective action resulted.

As measured by return on investment, Musharraf turned out to be a lousy bet. By the spring of this year, with Musharraf’s days obviously numbered, the Bush administration abandoned its friend and ally. In doing so, it found itself without a policy as far as Pakistan was concerned.

To fill the void, Bush turned to the Pentagon. Nearly seven years into the Afghan war and five years into the Iraq war, Pakistan has become the next problem that the president intends to solve through the application of armed force. Without congressional authorization and almost entirely shielded from public view, a new war has begun.

Rather than a partner, Pakistan is becoming an area of operations. Even as Washington denounces Russia for violating Georgian sovereignty, U.S. violations of Pakistani sovereignty have become routine. The most commonly employed tactic relies on missile-firing drones to patrol Pakistani airspace and attack suspected Al Qaeda or Taliban militants. Yet there is also evidence of a growing willingness to put boots on the ground. On Sept. 3, in a widely reported incident, U.S. special operations troops raided a village in South Waziristan, leaving a dozen or more Pakistanis dead.

The Bush administration has seemingly concluded that Pakistan poses the primary obstacle to success in Afghanistan. As long as jihadists can freely infiltrate across the border shared by those two countries, the thinking goes, victory in the Afghan war will remain elusive.

“We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan,” Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently remarked. “But until we ... eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming.”

Will raids, however vigorously executed, clean out the Taliban and Al Qaeda havens? Not a chance. At best, they will keep jihadists off-balance. In the meantime, as U.S. operations inevitably produce a stream of noncombatant casualties, they will exacerbate anti-Americanism in Pakistan. As the recent bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad reminds us, one unintended consequence may be to jeopardize Pakistan’s already precarious stability.

The real aim of these raids is to goad Pakistan’s senior military leadership into action. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of the Pakistani army, has declared categorically that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country will be defended at all cost.” Kayani also insists that “no external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan.” Each time an American aircraft enters Pakistani airspace and fires on some Pakistani village, Kayani is made to look a fool.

The problem with this strategy of goading is twofold. First, U.S. expectations probably exceed Pakistani capabilities: Pakistan’s army is large but not notably effective, especially as a counterinsurgent force. Second, Pakistani national security priorities differ from our own. Traditionally, Pakistani generals like Kayani worry more about India than the Taliban. In short, when it comes to doing our bidding, Pakistan’s army can’t and won’t.

Rather than prodding Pakistan to act, the Pentagon over the next several months could again find itself starting something that it cannot finish. In that event, Bush will bestow on his successor an exceedingly unwelcome surprise.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and the author of, most recently, “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.”