Despite differences over strategies and tactics in the fight against global jihadi terrorism, there has been a convergence of views between the previous administration of George Bush and the present administration of President Barack Obama as to what should be the ultimate objective of the US’ war against global terrorism. They are both agreed that the ultimate objective should be to prevent another 9/11 in the US homeland by Al Qaeda and an act of catastrophic terrorism involving either the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) material or devastating attacks on the critical infrastructure.
In their view, of all the terrorist organizations operating from Pakistani territory, only Al Qaeda has the capability for launching another 9/11 in the US homeland and for organizing an act of catastrophic terrorism. Hence, the first priority of the Bush administration was to the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, its ideological ally. This priority continues under Obama too. During the election campaign, Obama’s criticism of the policies of Bush was not because of the focus on the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but because of what he looked upon as the inadequacy of that focus as illustrated by the perceived failure of the Bush administration to have Osama bin Laden and his No.2 Ayman Al-Zawahiri killed or captured and the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal belt destroyed.
He said during the election campaign: “We are fighting on the wrong battlefield. The terrorists who attacked us and who continue to plot against us are resurgent in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan”¦”
He attributed the inadequacy of that focus and the failure of the Bush Administration to destroy or even seriously weaken Al Qaeda to what he looked upon as the unnecessary US involvement in Iraq, which took resources and attention away from the war against Al Qaeda in the Pakistan–Afghanistan region. According to him, the real threat to the US homeland came from the Pakistan–Afghanistan region and not from Iraq and hence there should have been no diversion of the attention and resources from there. He said during the election campaign: “We are fighting on the wrong battlefield. The terrorists who attacked us and who continue to plot against us are resurgent in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They should have been our focus then. They must be our focus now.” In a speech at the Wilson Centre in Washington DC on August 1, 2007, he said: “When I am President, we will wage the war that has to be won…The first step must be getting off the wrong battlefield in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Another point on which there has been a convergence between the views of the two is over the importance of Pakistan in the war against global terrorism. Both feel that the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban cannot be won without the co-operation of Pakistan, which essentially means the Pakistani Army. Obama said during the campaign: “Success in Afghanistan requires action in Pakistan. While Pakistan has made some contributions by bringing some Al Qaeda operatives to justice, the Pakistani Government has not done nearly enough to limit extremist activity in the country and to help stabilize Afghanistan. I have supported aid to Pakistan in the Senate and…I would continue substantial military aid if Pakistan takes action to root out the terrorists.” He also said when Pervez Musharraf was still the President: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will. I firmly believe that if we know the whereabouts of bin Laden and his deputies and we have exhausted all other options, we must take them out.”
No terrorist organization in Pakistan can exist without State complicity if not sponsorship, sanctuaries and funds. Not only Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but also the largely Punjabi terrorist organizations of Pakistan operating against India in Indian territory enjoy these three essential elements of survival in Pakistan.
His proclaimed determination to act unilaterally against high-value targets of Al Qaeda in Pakistani territory is no different from the policy pursued by the Bush Administration in the last year of his presidency. Unmanned Predator aircraft of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out over 30 strikes on suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistani territory during 2008 as against 10 in 2006 and 2007. These strikes were carried out despite protests by the Pakistan Government and Army and resulted in the deaths of eight middle-level Arab operatives of Al Qaeda. Since assuming office, Obama has stepped up the Predator attacks on suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban hide-outs in Pakistani territory.
However, Obama has avoided specific pronouncements on his willingness to order land-based strikes on the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistani territory. Under the Bush administration, the US special forces did try a land-based strike in South Waziristan in September, 2008, which was not successful. It did not launch any more land-based strikes following a furor in Pakistan. While the Asif Ali Zardari Government is avoiding any action to resist the Predator strikes despite its open condemnation of them, there seems to be a fear in Washington that if the US continues to undertake land-based strikes, public pressure could force the Pakistan Government and the Army to resist them resulting in an undesirable confrontation between the armies of the two countries.
Obama faces the same dilemma as Bush faced. The sporadic successes of the Predator strikes alone will not be able to effectively destroy the terrorist infrastructure of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistani territory. To be effective, land-based strikes would also be necessary. However, the political consequences of repeated land-based strikes would be unpredictable. There is already considerable anger in the tribal belt against the Pakistan army for co-operating — even half-heartedly — with the US in its war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. How to make up for this unsatisfactory co-operation by the Pakistan Army by stepping up unilateral US covert actions in the Pakistani territory without adding to the public anger against the Zardari Government is the main question. That was the question to which the advisers of George Bush were not able to come up with a satisfactory answer. Even the advisers of Barack Obama do not seem to have an answer to it so far.