Paris, January 24, 2008 – The United States with its allies, in its Asian wars, has a recurring problem with political-military sanctuaries from which its enemies and their supporters thwart American aims. It has the problem again, in troubled Pakistan, and seems to be contemplating the same attempted remedy that always before has made things worse.
In the past, it has tried first to deal with the sanctuary through bombing, then with special operations forces – in both cases unsuccessfully.
Eventually it reaches the point when U.S. generals demand to be allowed to invade and put an end to the sanctuary, supposedly solving the problem.
In the one major case when this was ordered by the White House, in Cambodia in 1970, it didn't work. It led to human disaster.
In April 1970, during the war in Vietnam, the Cambodian government was unable to interdict the flow of supplies and troops from North Vietnam through Cambodia to the insurgent Viet Cong in South Vietnam. As a result, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia.
Their goal was to break into, destroy, and occupy the so-called "sanctuary" inside Cambodia called the Ho Chi Minh "trail," which was actually a wide swath of roads and routes inside Cambodia which the previously neutralist government was unable to control, and through which Communist forces and material moved south to supply the insurrection in South Vietnam.
American troops were withdrawn in June (because of international and American domestic protests), but the South Vietnamese forces remained, and American B-52 bombing of the trails, which had begun in 1969, was resumed.
The invasion and the bombings failed in their objectives, with ultimately disastrous political and human consequences for Cambodia, as well as for South Vietnam.
Since the eventual withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from South Vietnam and the victory of Communist forces there, it has often been argued in America that defeat was the result of the failure of the U.S. to invade the "sanctuary" of North Vietnam, whose government had sustained the insurrection in the south.
Today, the United States again has a "sanctuary" problem, this time in its (and NATO's) war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
After the American defeat of the Taliban government of Afghanistan in 2001, that government's leader, the Mullah Mohammed Omar, and Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers, made their way into the difficultly penetrable mountainous region of Pakistan's North West Frontier, much of which is under autonomous tribal control and has never been fully subdued either by the Pakistani or earlier British colonial governments, or by foreign invaders. The Taliban forces today invading Afghanistan have their bases there, and continue to give refuge to al Qaeda.
The success of the renewed Taliban operations inside Afghanistan against U.S. and NATO forces has inspired increasing U.S. pressure on Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to suppress the Taliban inside the Pakistan frontier, which may be impossible for him to do, but which also has been an extremely serious political problem for him, in view of his mounting internal difficulties with Moslem extremism and Pakistani jihadist insurgents.
He is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Part of his army has been complicit with the Taliban. American political interference now is one of his biggest problems, having provoked a huge domestic crisis by forcing him to accept the return of former prime minister Benezir Bhutto, supposedly to give the country a more democratic alignment but actually getting her killed, and parliamentary elections postponed, with democracy weakened.
U.S. Special Operations commanders now have demanded that Pakistan admit U.S. troops as "trainers" and "mentors" of Pakistani operations against their own stubbornly independent tribal population. This apparently is on the assumption that Americans know more about how to operate in the untamed tribal territories than the Pakistanis themselves.
While currently ruled out, there have also been proposals at the Pentagon and in the American press that U.S. forces simply ignore the Pakistan government and go in and do the job themselves, defeating the Taliban on Pakistani soil, thereby eliminating this latest "sanctuary" for enemy troops and obstacle to U.S. victory in Afghanistan.
The claim is made that only "a sustained ground offensive" in the tribal territories can deal with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. (It's also been suggested that Americans seize control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons while they are in the country.)
It is hard to believe that responsible men are actually proposing American military operations in the tribal territories. No foreign force has ever been successful there. The American army is pushed to its limit, already committed to an evolving and by no means reassuring struggle in Iraq, and fighting a losing war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Despite electoral rejection of the idea, President Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney are likely still to harbor the idea of ending their mandates with a bombing strike to paralyze Iran, inspiring the Iranians to retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
What a legacy that would be – plus a new intervention into Pakistan! American voters are unwise to assume that next November's vote will end this nightmare.
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