On January 23rd, American drones conducted two missiles strikes in Pakistan, killing at least 18 people. The attacks marked the first strikes inside Pakistan during President Obama's administration. On January 29th, another missile strike killed 12 "suspected militants" in western Pakistan.
It's unclear when exactly during the Bush administration that the US began attacks inside Pakistan. But they grew progressively less secret during his second term. At times it seems like the government of Pakistan protests the attacks publicly but privately gives the US a wink to keep bombing in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). At other times the protests seem genuine.
Even though it's public knowledge that the US is fighting a war in Pakistan, there is still a veil of secrecy over the whole affair. It's hard to determine how many and what kind of attacks have been conducted. And it's harder to determine how many people have been killed. I found one article saying there were approximately 30 attacks in 2008 that killed more than 200 people. The source of that information is apparently a US defense official, meaning that civilian casualties would almost certainly be underestimated. An Afghan news report says that since 2004 the US "has attacked Pakistan at least 50 times, claiming over 450 lives." And that article's source is apparently an Afghan defense official.
The war in Pakistan is not limited to robot planes bombing remote villages. An article in the NY Times back in September described the "first publicly acknowledged" US ground attack in Pakistan, confirming that there have been others. This particular attacked involved helicopters carrying in soldiers who landed and opened fire in a village just across the border with Afghanistan. As always, accounts differ, but you can get a pretty good idea of what happened. A US military spokesman said that "at least one child" was killed and that several women who were killed "were helping the Qaeda fighters." The governor of the Pakistani province that was attacked, a Pakistani phone company employee, and local residents who were interviewed all say that 19 or 20 people were killed, mostly women and children.
This is a war that was designed to creep up on us, so that by the time the American public is really aware of it, it's already a fait accompli. It started out covert. And of the little bit we heard, we were assured the attacks were only done in "hot pursuit" of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters fleeing across the border. Or, we were given the impression that attacks in Pakistan were only carried out if there were a high-value, fleeting target and the Pakistanis "could not or would not" act.
We can continue to pretend that these are just ad hoc military operations, conducted on short notice. Fleeting targets. Hot pursuit. Or we can speak the truth: We have been fighting a quasi-secret war in Pakistan for years now, and the American public has been kept mostly in the dark.
War in Afghanistan has spread--as it almost always does--into a neighboring country. As I write this, the cover of Newsweek magazine calls Afghanistan, "Obama's Vietnam." If so, then Pakistan is Obama's Laos and Cambodia. The American people never signed up for war in Laos and Cambodia then, and we haven't authorized war in Pakistan now. The war in Vietnam spread across southeast Asia because there was widespread civilian support for our enemy, and enemy was often indistinguishable from civilian . The resulting, inevitable US bombing of civilians across the region only reinforced the population's support for our enemy.
If it's not the same story in Pakistan, then it's at least very similar. If the government of Pakistan is viewed as a foreign occupier by the people in the FATA, how do you think American robot planes and commando raids look? No solution that includes our continued presence in western Pakistan will work. Every attack helps further legitimize the Taliban.
Here is my proposal: The United States Congress should debate an official declaration of war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan's tribal areas.
If it passes, at least we will have brought the war into the public eye. We will get to hear arguments for it and against it on a national stage. There will be some public accountability. We will each know how our representatives voted. If it passes, whether it's right or wrong, at least it will be a war that the American people want, as far as our public institutions can determine.
If it fails, then the attacks must immediately cease. We could say with justification that any continued military campaign in the FATA is an illegal war against the expressed will of the American people. If our military leaders say that we cannot fight effectively in Afghanistan without fighting in Pakistan, then we will have to get out of Afghanistan too.
Some might object that war in Pakistan already falls under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which passed Congress on September 18th 2001. And the way that resolution reads, they would be technically correct. But do we really want a joint resolution passed just seven days after the 9/11 attacks to grant every future president the power to wage war wherever he chooses against those whom "he determines" had any relation to those attacks? That is a blank check if I've ever heard of one. (The Bush administration cashed that check to buy Guantanamo military commissions and domestic wiretapping, by the way.)
We should treat the AUMF from 2001 as essentially a declaration of war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Campaigns in other countries should require new joint resolutions from Congress.
The problem is that no one in power is going to want to debate a Pakistan war declaration. Congress will not want the accountability. (As long as no one votes on it, no one has to accept responsibility.) The president will not want to have his hands tied. (Once he's elected, representative democracy becomes an inconvenience.) We, the people, will have to force it on them.
I believe in democracy enough to think that even decisions of war and peace should be left to the people. These things are too important for presidents and generals.