Pakistan and the Limits of Sovereignty

Matthew Yglesias calls John McCain’s refusal to commit to ordering a U.S. strike on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan were we to have actionable intelligence on his whereabouts bizarre. It’s also inconsistent with these comments McCain made in an interview with the editors of Defense News last October:

Q: Does the U.S. have any options with regard to al-Qaida and reputed al-Qaida strongholds in the federally unregulated areas in Pakistan? Other than what seems to be sort of a status quo of waiting for them to come over the border, the Pakistani Army occasionally launching a strike to — well, it’s hard to say for what end because they don’t seem to be sustained efforts. What are the U.S. options there?

McCain: I think they’re very difficult options. I think that if we knew of al-Qaida — more specifically Taliban, it’s mainly Taliban that are operating in these places — that we have to do what’s necessary. We don’t have to advertise it. We don’t have to embarrass or humiliate the Pakistani government. . .

. . .These are all very tough calls, and in summary I think that what happens in Waziristan will be dictated by events in Islamabad, but I also think that we, where necessary, without in any way embarrassing our friends, can have a lot of options.

Q: So if you were president and you knew that bin Laden were over there, you had a target spotting, you could nail him, you’d go get him?

McCain: Sure. Sure. We have to, and I’m sure that after the initial flurry, that whoever our friends are, wherever he is, would be relieved because, as I mentioned to you before, he’s still very effective in the world, very, very effective.

Ygelsias goes on to defend McCain’s original position, and that of Barack Obama, saying “Under the circumstances, Pakistani sovereignty can’t be your top concern.” Kal over at The Moor Next Door argues that “cowboy bombings” in Pakistani territory, even territory where the Pakistani government exercises nominal control, are a fool’s bargain sacrficing prudence for the appearance of toughness:

Any American action in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden or other targets should be done in consultation with the Pakistani government. With or without consultation, the legitimacy of the government is at stake within those areas it does exercise control over and in those within which it does not. Doing so would at the very least allow the government to prepare for the consequences, however bad they may be. Not doing so would cause major problems for the United States, and Pakistan.

Something that’s been overlooked in the discussion is that the consensus is now converging on putting American forces directly in the line of fire of any eventual blowback from a Waziristan (read: Pakistan) operation, in the form of a dramatically increased American military presence in Afghanistan. That blowback would be on top of an already thorny situation. Last night, Hampton forwarded me this video interview with Maulana Fazlullah, a Swat-based Taliban cleric who declares that he’s got waves of suicide bombers ready to be unleashed in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as this Voice of America article describing the breakdown of the recent “peace agreement” between the Taliban and the Pakistani central government in Swat province.

Clearly we have the right to secure our interests, and clearing out the Pakistan border areas of violent extremists is in our interests. But how far does that logic extend? Into Swat? Into Islamabad if, as a result of our incursions, the Pakistani government becomes threatened?

The discussion surrounding limited incursions and missile strikes into Pakistani territory also begs the question of why, back in 2001, we didn’t use a similar approach to take care of the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, instead of generously relieving the Taliban of the responsibility for governing the entire country? It could be that such a limited campaign might have either, 1) proven ineffective; or, 2) dragged us inevitably into the broader conflict in which we find ourselves now. But if so, those are two arguments that weigh against the kinds of interventionism in Pakistan that’s being bandied about so cavalierly today.