Friday, February 6, 2009

War in Pakistan? Let the People Decide

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.


Becky said...

Great post. I remember hearing the "hot pursuit" justification. I think I've been in denial about the whole Pakistan thing. If denial makes sense in talking about international affairs. I think the Vietnam/Cambodia comparison may be apt.

What I don't get is Pakistan's posture with respect to this whole situation. Is this just a situation in the FATA that they don't want to handle themselves?

Camp Papa said...

Well, I'm conflicted about this issue. It is hard to argue against the notion that we ought to be undertaking only those military operations that have the support of the American people. I also have to think about the loss of innocent lives. If my child or grandchild were to be killed by a foreign power - even one pursuing its "security interests" - I would be implacably incendiary toward that power.

No Pakistani government as ever shown a lot of enthusiasm, much less the ability, for imposing its will in the tribal areas. It is essentially a fourth world area, where anyone who either buys the aide of, or earns the sympathy of, the local leaders has free rein to operate across the border.

I despair, especially for the girls and women of Afghanistan - not to mention the potential for the export of terror - if the Taliban takes control again.

It's hard to be a grown-up in a democracy.

Camp Papa said...

I forgot to ask, isn't there a difference between "attacking Pakistan" and attacking (someone) in Pakistan?

Nate Meyer said...

Unfortunately, I don't think Pakistan can handle the FATA themselves with all the political turmoil they're going through.

As for your post, I agree that actions like this should be voted on in Congress. I know the military is against that because our political machine is cumbersome and consequently inefficient, but that's the trade off we get for having checks and balances.

Now for a random rant on Pakistan...

Afghanistan has already been the Soviet Union's Vietnam, and we were the ones supporting the Taliban against the Soviets. Now we're the ones supporting Pakistan against the Taliban. Who will we be supporting against Pakistan 20 years from now? We have a habit of arming destabilized regimes (and we often destabilize them ourselves). Maybe it's time we support our allies with something better than weapons?

I believe in "Hearts and Minds" campaigns, but they need to be our priority, not our penance. If we build schools in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq instead of guns, then 20 years from now we'll have an educated population and not an armed Jihadist regime.

All that having been said, I understand that international politics is much more complicated than any one person can understand. Stupid butterfly effect..

Nate Meyer said...

Apparently there's also a Hearts and Minds campaign going on right now in Iraq, but the only way to make heart and mind campaigns effective is to make them our priority. Shooting someone and giving them a Band-Aid never works out well in the long run.

Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is a weak post.

1) It's riddled with assumptions. Perhaps they are true, but more likely they are too simplified to be anything but false. "Every attack helps further legitimize the Taliban." Really? EVERY attack? And what scientific evidence does the author have to substantiate that every attack hurts U.S. standing more than the Taliban's standing? Remember that the Pashtun tribesmen in the area have two groups they can blame for an attack--and one is the Taliban for drawing the ire of the Americans to their FATA neighborhood. I think the author is probably less qualified to make that judgment, being on the other side of the planet receiving all his news fourth-hand, than those actually in theater making the decisions, whatever those decisions may be.

2) Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Sure, there are similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam, just as there were similarities between Iraq and Vietnam. But Mullah Omar isn't Ho Chi Minh, Hamid Karzai isn't Ngo Dinh Diem, and the relationships of the peoples to their governments aren't even close to the same. Learning and applying the lessons of Vietnam to NEW SCENARIOS helps. But continuing to see every low-intensity or guerrilla conflict as a new Vietnam hinders.

3) "Letting the people decide" through Congress is a farcical argument. Guess what? In the 2001 AUMF the Congress already did decide. And although the author finds referencing this Congressional act inconvenient, it is still a standing law that the Congress has not rescinded. Nor has the Congress exercised its legal rights under the War Powers Act. But let's just say for the moment that the Congress did consider explicitly authorizing a cross-border conflict with Pakistan. Whether they decided to authorize force or not, the decision would be sort of like using a sledgehammer to fix a Rolex. So war is now authorized, and what was a covert conflict in one ungoverned region in Pakistan has become an all-out, authorized war between two nuclear armed states? Are you kidding? If the Pakistani government did not collapse at that point for failing to resist a declared U.S. war on their country, we would surely enter an all-out war that further mortgaged our original reasons for the incursions (to attack the Taliban, NOT the Pakistani government). Ok, then let's not authorize the war. But wait--there's UBL across the border, blowing raspberries at us. Too bad, can't do anything about it. For all the high-minded moral reasons the author might provide for his suggestion, the reasoning is vapid. "The People," by whom he apparently means "the Congress" since there won't be a direct vote on whether or not to authorize military force, can't vote on each incursion individually, which would be necessary for us to bear the whole moral brunt of the decisions we would make.

I recommend the author read the Federalist papers, especially paper 8. No one wants an unnecessary war--least of all our new President who opposed the Iraq War in the first place. But to divest the Executive of his ability to make quick judgments about the security of the American people is not only stupid and dangerous, it's unconstitutional.

Better Than Machines said...

To the anonymous commenter,

Your willingness to hand over our democracy to self-proclaimed experts is a little frightening. Thankfully, your elitist philosophy appears to be on the ebb in this country, at least for now.

In your first point, you say that those of us on the other side of the planet from Pakistan (virtually all American citizens) are “less qualified” to make decisions than “those actually in theater.” Do you think that we are qualified to run a democracy at all? Or just that the military should control our foreign policy? “Those actually in theater” work for us, the people, as high-minded and moral as that might sound. They can, should, and do feed intelligence back to us. But we get to make decisions about when and where to wage war.

In your second point, you remind us that Afghanistan is actually a different country than Vietnam and that 2009 is a different year than 1969. Then, you reiterate a point I made in the original post, when you say, “Learning and applying the lessons of Vietnam to NEW SCENARIOS helps.” Yes. Afghanistan is a new scenario, and we should apply the lessons of Vietnam. Here are a few lessons. It's bad news when military necessity drives your war from one country into another and the American public is only vaguely aware of it. It's bad news when you are bombing civilian areas because your enemy is embedded with the civilian population. It's bad news when conservatives start telling us that the American people are not qualified to make decisions about where and when to fight, and decisions are better left to those “in theater.”

Next, you cite the 2001 AUMF, which I called “a blank check,” as all the authorization that is needed to fight a war inside Pakistan. That's precisely the problem. The AUMF is an authorization to wage war anywhere and everywhere.

You imply that a formal Congressional declaration, or an AUMF specifically for the FATA, would alert the Pakistani people that we are fighting a war in their country and that it would destabilize their government. Here's an update: They already know we are fighting a war in their country, and it is already destabilizing their government. This conflict is only “covert” in a political sense, in that the American people aren't really discussing it--no oversight, no accountability.

Finally, do you really believe that if Congress voted down the declaration I describe that we would not kill UBL if we had a chance? UBL would be an ACTUAL “high-value target.” He would be the very definition of whom the 2001 AUMF targeted.

I could go on about some of the specific fallacies in your comment, but what's most disturbing is the general tone: That democracy is a silly little thing for “high-minded moral” people, and the real world demands an Executive of almost limitless power.

Where have we heard that sentiment before?

Anonymous said...

Your attempts to assassinate my character aside, I believe in democracy wholeheartedly. More to the point, if you had read Federalist 8 as I recommended, you would have noted that Publius aptly points out that a democracy that does not enjoy a reasonable measure of security will not be a democracy for very long. An insecure people will cry out for security at the expense of all else, as Abraham Maslow pointed out in the field of psychology, and liberty will quickly slip away.

The point is, how are 330 million people, or in your formulation, 535 U.S. representatives and senators, going to instruct an on-scene military commander, with any expediency, what is or is not a high-value target? Even if such an unwieldy process could conclusively lead to a decision, would the people or the Congress be able to establish rules of engagement and rules for the use of force sufficient to scope the mission so that objectives can be met while minimizing collateral damage? The obvious answer is no, and your simplistic solution to an incredibly complex problem breaks down. In the words of H.L. Mencken, "there is always an easy solution to every problem--neat, plausible, and wrong." Or, if you prefer a personal description, "It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull."

Believe it or not, we have a President for this very reason--contrary to your position, "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." Every four years, the American public offers a referendum on the performance of the President and the decisions he has made. Or, if you really wish to involve the Congress, they get to issue a referendum on the performance of military commanders whenever the Commander in Chief nominates one for promotion to the next rank or nominates one to take over a Senate-approved position, like Commander of U.S. Central Command or Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

You are right in one point at least. I am not a "small d" democrat, in the sense that I don't believe every decision a government makes should be offered to the people, referendum-style. It might surprise you, but no such government exists on earth. Such a government certainly doesn't exist, and never has, in the U.S. Nor, according to the interpretations of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, was such a government ever intended to take hold in the U.S. And for good reason: such a government can't govern. It's the same as having no government at all.

Since the entire record of human history opposes your position as a "small d" democrat, I feel quite comfortable in my position as a "Large D" Democrat. I voted for Obama, just as you probably did. But what I understood, and you apparently didn't, is that when I voted for him, I "vested" him with "the executive power...of the United States of America." I also made him "commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states" for the purposes of "faithfully execut[ing] the office of President of the United States, the best of [his] abilit[ies], preserv[ing], protect[ing] and defend[ing] the Constitution of the United States."

My presumption is that protecting the physical security of Americans is an element of that oath. Perhaps your position differs?

Next time a burglar attacks your wife in the supposed safety of your own home, or steals your identity, or what have you, I propose a Congressional referendum on whether or not the police can arrest him and enforce the law. In case you forgot, the people you claim we are illegitimately attacking attacked us in 1993, 2001, in Yemen, Tanzania, and Kenya, and have an open declaration of war against us that they have never backed away from.

But you're too devoted to an impracticable, and unconstitutional, theory of democratic governance to grasp the implications of your suggestion followed all the way to their conclusion. To that point, I offer someone a bit less lofty than Mencken, Yogi Berra: "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

Good luck practicing your theory of democracy and securing the American people.

Better Than Machines said...

The straw man that you are eloquently destroying is some notion that national referendums should make tactical, battlefield decisions. I have neither proposed that nor heard anyone who has. You are pitting a cartoonish direct democracy against the status quo and pretending those are the only choices we have. It's similar to what the Bush administration did by presenting “the false choice between national security and our ideals,” as President Obama described it.

I offer a solution that falls between those absurd extremes. It's pretty simple, and if that means Mencken would think me a “dull man,” I think I'll survive.

If some of the attacks in western Pakistan were, in fact, against high-value targets or if battlefield commanders occaisionally had to make decisions that carried the war in Afghanistan across a national border into Pakistan, then fine. It's war. Stuff happens. That's why we have generals, intelligence officers, and presidents.

But when there have been 30 attacks, or 50, or more, over the course of at least several years, we need to look at the bigger picture: We are fighting a war inside Pakistan. I say such a dramatic commitment, and escalation, in the “war on terror” should require a new joint resolution from Congress. Again, we can pretend that these many dozens of attacks are independent, loosely-related things, or we can recognize that, as a whole, they constitute a war in Pakistan.

Imagine if the president decided one day to bomb some “suspected militants” in, say, Saudi Arabia. It was a quick, tactical decision. Then he does the same thing the next day and the next day and so on for five years. Sometimes ground attacks are conducted, and sometimes it's just aerial bombing. As things currently stand, the president would be justified in doing that under 2001 AUMF. Sound ridiculous? Change “Saudi Arabia” to “Pakistan,” and it's reality. Why not add Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iran as well?

In my post, I offered a solution:

1. Treat the 2001 AUMF as a declaration of war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan only. If necessary, repeal it and rewrite it to take away the ridiculous power it gave the executive branch.
2. Require new Congressional authorizations for each country where there will be sustained American military campaigns, i.e. “wars.”

I've enjoyed our discussion. If I allow you the last word so I can move on to other topics, don't interpret that as a sign of my acquiescence.

BTW, I dusted off Federalist Paper 8 at your request. It's hardly relevant to our discussion, and you are taking its ideas out of context. Hamilton is arguing for a strong union between the states in order to preclude the need for large standing armies within the country, which would set the states in “a progressive direction toward monarchy.” If anything, the paper is a critique of the domestic militarization of the Bush Era, where the “military state [has become] elevated above the civil” and conservative scare tactics encourage the public to “resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights.” I recommend readers check it out for themselves here:

Becky said...

Great discussion--I really enjoyed that exchange. And I hope Mr./Ms. Anonymous will come back again.

And what's with all the anonymity? Maybe this Mr/Ms Anon has a good reason, but why don't people just sign their names?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the spirited debate--I also enjoyed it. I look forward to more in the future. I still believe your answer is far too simplistic, but the beauty of a highly-complex and -ordered system like our government is that no simplistic solution can skate through the mechanisms of governance without accumulating turgid complexity. To a certain extent, the weight and mass of our bureaucracy saves us from the simplicity of our own answers.