At War in Pakistan

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 12:06 PM EDT

AT WAR IN PAKISTAN....This has been a subject of discussion so long that it's hardly even news anymore, but apparently the Bush administration has officially decided to endorse ongoing ground operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan:

President Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government, according to senior American officials.

...."The situation in the tribal areas is not tolerable," said a senior American official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the missions. "We have to be more assertive. Orders have been issued."

....The Central Intelligence Agency has for several years fired missiles at militants inside Pakistan from remotely piloted Predator aircraft. But the new orders for the military's Special Operations forces relax firm restrictions on conducting raids on the soil of an important ally without its permission.

Earlier in the year John McCain criticized Barack Obama for suggesting that he supported these kinds of operations, so purely for point-scoring reasons it would be nice to ask him whether he approves of Bush doing it instead. (First, though, McCain would have to come out of hiding long enough for a reporter ask him. That doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon since, with good reason, he's afraid of what else they might ask him about at the time.)

But what should we think about this on a non-point-scoring basis? At the risk of being thought a huge wuss, I have to confess to extremely mixed feelings. The situation in Pakistan has surely been tactically intolerable for some time, but this is the hardly the first time we've faced a situation like this. Vietnam analogies may be out of fashion, but it's worth remembering that this is exactly how we got mired down in Laos and Cambodia too: Viet Cong troops were using those countries as bases during the Vietnam War, and tactically this was every bit as intolerable as the Pakistan situation is today. But U.S. raids on those bases turned into U.S. bombing missions, and U.S. bombing missions eventually turned into full scale war. And we all know how that turned out.

In Pakistan, we've now gone from trying to work with the Pakistani government to occasional Predator attacks and now to periodic ground assaults. How likely is it that we can keep things from escalating further? What happens the first time the Taliban wins a firefight and takes some prisoners? What happens when civilian casualties rise to a level where the Pakistani government, under pressure domestically, can no longer pretend not to notice the raids? What happens when a raid goes bad, reinforcements are called in, and before long we have a couple of companies on the ground in some godforsaken corner of the tribal areas?

Needless to say, this is exactly the kind of liberal hand wringing that hawkish conservatives would normally pounce on. I suppose, however, that for now the pouncing has to be kept fairly low key since their own hawkish conservative presidential candidate seems to have the same qualms that I do. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that McCain's qualms were little more than a chance to take a shot at Barack Obama back when that seemed like a good idea, and would almost certainly disappear instantly once he took office. What then?