A Pakistani denial Thursday, with Islamabad insisting that no foreign troops were taking part in counterterrorism efforts inside the country, did little to quell the media furor over snippets of Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book, “Obama’s Wars.” The excerpts published by The Washington Post and The New York Times speak of significant tensions within the White House over the current strategy being pursued in Afghanistan and suggest that U.S.-trained Afghan special operations forces have been conducting actions — even if only intelligence gathering efforts — on the Pakistani side of the border.
Without the full text of the book in hand, it is difficult to fully analyse the claims being made. But ultimately, it is no secret that the Afghan war does not stop at the Afghan border; wars rarely do, and Woodward’s insight here is nothing new. If there is a military advantage to be had by crossing the border of a third country, history has consistently shown that it will be crossed. The Wehrmacht skirted the strongest fortifications of the Maginot Line by invading France through Belgium. Ho Chi Minh moved supplies to South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia. And the Taliban and al Qaeda find support and sanctuary in Pakistan.
And when a belligerent discovers that a border is providing an adversary with such a military advantage, an international boundary rarely proves to be a sufficient justification for the adversary to hold that advantage unopposed. Gen. John Pershing went into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, Nicaragua pursued the Contras into Honduras, and Colombia raided a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia camp in Ecuador. And the United States has gone into Pakistan to hunt down and kill Taliban and al Qaeda operatives — just as it did in Syria when foreign jihadists, weapons and materiel were being infiltrated into Iraq from there.
As the WikiLeaks reports provided some tactical details about operations in Afghanistan, so too may some interesting facts be gleaned from Woodward’s renowned reporting. But at this point, few truly believe that the United States has respected the Afghan-Pakistani border for the last nine years and limited itself to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes permitted by Islamabad. Indeed, signals intelligence and intelligence that Pakistan chooses to share with the United States are almost certainly insufficient to sustain those UAV strikes — especially at their mounting tempo. UAV strikes require targets, and identifying those targets requires at least some actionable human intelligence.
Ultimately, there is little doubt that U.S. personnel have crossed the border into Pakistan and engaged in combat. The idea that Afghan special operations forces are being trained to — and are — following in their footsteps is not only completely plausible, but likely. Military imperatives in time of war supersede all sorts of international laws and norms. When necessary — as in this case — the pursuit of those imperatives is done in a clandestine and deniable manner.
But the Afghan-Pakistani border is not a special case. More than 2,000 American special operations forces are conducting operations in more than 75 countries, not including the 10,000 elite troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are in danger of being shot at or are being shot at in at least six of those other 75. And that’s only what U.S. Special Operations Command will admit to and does not include “Other Government Agencies,” in particular the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division, which is responsible for most — if not all — cross-border raids into Pakistan.
The rugged, mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border does not really exist according to terrain or demographics. It exists on paper, but in practice the border holds little more sway than international counternarcotics laws in the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Here, boundaries — like loyalty — are tribal-based. And so long as the United States is enmeshed in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts there, it will be forced to either disregard the border at times or surrender considerable advantage to its adversaries.
But choosing to cross that border does not ensure victory. Pershing never caught Pancho Villa. The United States crossed into Laos and Cambodia but lost in Vietnam. The Soviets regularly and heavily bombed the Pakistani side of the border but failed to defeat the mujahedeen or stem the flow of American FIM-92 Stinger missiles. And the United States is not defeating the Taliban — on either side of the border.
*This report is reprinted with permission of STRATFOR. It may not be reprinted by any other party without express permission of STRATFOR.
For more reports, visit www.stratfor.com
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