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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Fri. Aug 03, 2007

The Invader Or The Nuker

Barack Obama raised a ruckus by saying that he’s in favor of killing Al Qaeda where we might find them. Like in Pakistan. You know, the ol’ “with us or against us” thing about how countries that harbor terrorists should expect visitors in US military uniforms. Well, actually, I’m distorting his quote just as much as those who are now criticizing him, claiming he plans to invade Pakistan if he’s elected. In a further distortion, I heard that Hillary responded by saying she might nuke them instead.

How did we get here in less than one news cycle? What exactly did the man say, and why is he getting so much heat for it?

Two separate questions, almost unrelated. Let’s take the first. In a time honored American tradition, the critics have seized on one sentence in a very long speech. In that one sentence Obama said: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

Shocking! And radically similar to a statement by Fran Townsend, the President’s homeland security adviser, appearing on FOX on July 22 (emphasis mine):

WALLACE: If our enemies are regenerating their safe haven in Pakistan, under the Bush doctrine of preemptive military action to take out any threat, why aren’t we doing everything we can — special operations forces, pilotless drones — why aren’t we doing everything we can to take out that safe haven?

TOWNSEND: Well, Chris, just because we don’t speak about things publicly doesn’t mean we’re not doing many of the things you’re talking about. First and foremost, we’re working with our…

WALLACE: Well, are we doing those things?

TOWNSEND: First and foremost, we’re working with our Pakistani allies to deny the safe haven.

But let’s remember that the federally administrated tribal area is an area of Pakistan that’s never seen the writ of the Pakistani government. It’s never extended that far.

President Musharraf has got over 80,000 Pakistani military troops in the FATA and working with us they’ve sustained hundreds of casualties in this fight.

We’re working with them, but the president has been clear. Job number one is to protect the American people, and there are no options that are off the table.

In fact, Pakistan responded negatively to her comments, just as they have to Obama’s comments.

I know this is horribly unfair in our world of quick-hit partisan politics, but let’s take a look at the context of that sentence. Perhaps the entire paragraph in which it existed, and maybe even the paragraph before and after:

As President, I would make the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan.

I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

And Pakistan needs more than F-16s to combat extremism. As the Pakistani government increases investment in secular education to counter radical madrasas, my Administration will increase America’s commitment. We must help Pakistan invest in the provinces along the Afghan border, so that the extremists’ program of hate is met with one of hope. And we must not turn a blind eye to elections that are neither free nor fair — our goal is not simply an ally in Pakistan, it is a democratic ally.

BarackObama.com | Remarks of Senator Obama: The War We Need to Win

Well, with the surrounding context, it sounds like there’s a lot of “carrot and stick,” not an invasion. And there’s an aspect of what he states later in the speech: “I will make clear that the days of compromising our values are over.”

But even if you reduce it to that one sentence, I have a hard time seeing the problem. It’s a double conditional. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets … and President Musharraf won’t act … we will.”

If you have a problem with that, I would suggest you’re going to have a problem with most any attempt to fight Al Qaeda abroad. Because almost any attempt to directly attack them will occur within the borders of some sovereign state. Furthermore, the tribal areas of Pakistan have never been under the effective control of the government. Proof comes in the form of the failed “treaties” the government entered into last fall with tribal leaders in those areas harboring extremists from the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

A strong argument can be made that Waziristan in particular is not a part of any sovereign state, though it does fall within the Western drawn border that designates where Afghanistan ends and Pakistan begins. And it’s a border largely unrecognized by the Pashtun people who live on both sides and have been there much longer than the Western drawn line.

As for Al Qaeda and that “line,” follow the very short trail of the past six years.

From Jalalabad, where bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan in 1996, travel 50-60 miles south and you are in Tora Bora, site of Al Qaeda’s “last stand” in late 2001. From Tora Bora, travel about 60-70 miles south-southwest, and you are in the area of Khost and Gardez, Paktia Province, the Taliban and Al Qaeda hotbed where Operation Anaconda was unleashed in the spring of 2002. Move another 60-70 miles south-southwest from there and you’re in Northern Waziristan, the most likely lair of remaining Al Qaeda leadership. During this 170-210 mile jaunt, you would cross the zig-zagging border three times, as Al Qaeda has for six years. As if it does not exist.

And across that border somewhere, at the very least, they’ve set up a first class propaganda operation that issues video and audio tapes pretty much at will. Depending on who you want to believe, they intend to attack us very very soon (the Bush administration and Al Qaeda currently appear to be the primary proponents of this position), and are using this safe haven to plot and execute that attack.

It is far from illiberal to think they should be squashed before they can act again. It is rational. It’s also rational to ask an allegedly willing ally to do that for us, or with us, rather than act unilaterally. But if they won’t … we should.

As for the idea that if we strike Zawahiri or bin Laden in the tribal regions, the extremists will kill or overthrow Musharraf, they’ve been trying to do that for years. He’s survived three or four assassination attempts. Then next one may get him, whether we attack in Pakistan, or all mass convert to Islam. Because no matter what we do, they want him dead really bad. We can’t change that, for better or worse.

Then, domestically, the debate turned nuclear. Literally, in response to the question, “In Afghanistan or Pakistan, is there any circumstance where you would be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons to defeat terrorism and Osama bin Laden?” ... Obama said nukes were “not on the table.”

Immediately, Clinton pounced, trying to reclaim the peak of Dem Hawk Mountain, saying “Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or nonuse of nuclear weapons.”

And there you have your answer as to “why is he getting so much heat” for his comment. The Clinton camp likely sees Obama as the only real remaining threat to the Democratic nomination. So any time they can paint him as inexperienced in foreign affairs, too hawkish, not hawkish enough, etc. ... they will. Quickly and often.

How do I feel about the idea of nuking Al Qaeda? I’ve already told you once. Last September, in a very long article titled Accountability Is For Appeasers, I brought up an item in the news back then, that the Bush administration was considering the use of tactical nukes to attack Iran’s nuclear program.

If we’re willing to consider that option, because it might be the only way to be sure, and would save the lives of American troops, and if we were unwilling to commit more than the two dozen US SOF and CIA operators who were at Tora Bora … where was the tactical nuke option then? Where was Dr. Strangelove Dick Cheney when we really needed him?

It was been well documented by multiple independent sources that we had bin Laden, and approximately 1,500 of his hardest core followers “trapped” in a six square mile area. Literally itching for a fight with the infidels. If the decision was made not to commit the battalion of troops repeatedly requested, well then, why didn’t we create a small mushroom cloud in one of the most remote mountain valleys on this planet?

It’s also been shown the administration went into Iraq in part because they were worried about “sending a message? that America had the will to respond overwhelmingly to such attacks. Well, how’s that for a message … pull a 9/11 on America, and we will track you down, corner you, and nuke you.

So you can see how I am torn in my choice for President. Barack is ready to go after the bastards in their safe haven. But Hillary might nuke them.

It’s a good thing I’ve got a few more months to decide.


Peanut Gallery

1  Zack wrote:

OK I am going to comment on your old excerpt:

why didn’t we create a small mushroom cloud in one of the most remote mountain valleys on this planet?

It might be remote but the whole area is not very lightly populated. It is only lightly populated compared to the rest of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As for using (tactical) nukes against Bin Laden, if we have him cornered and pinpointed enough to use nukes accurately, then we can do the same job with conventional bombs. In fact, conventional bombs would be better, not only because we wouldn’t break the taboo against nuclear use once again but also because dropping a nuke on a madrassa and killing children due to bad intelligence or delay or whatever would be much more problematic.

2  Reid wrote:

First off, the escape from Tora Bora is a burr under my personal saddle, and a prime case of hindsight. We weren’t willing to commit the requested battalion of troops in order to capture/kill those who killed thousands of Americans, and we weren’t willing to use weapons (like a tactical nuke) that would avoid the use of troops.

Would there have been civilian casualties? Yes. It’s also worth noting that our ongoing efforts in Afghanistan result in civilian casualties nearly every month since late 2001, and now in Pakistan as well, as you note.

As for the idea that if we have him “cornered and pinpointed enough to use nukes accurately, then we can do the same job with conventional bombs,” I think Tora Bora itself points out that isn’t always the case. We have never had bin Laden and the core of Al Qaeda more “cornered” than we did in late November, 2001. We dropped tons of conventional ordinance in that remote valley over the course of about ten days. As I’ve said again and again, “we had the cat in the bag, and now we’re chasing kittens all over the place.”

But the reality is that was a unique situation, full of the advantages of hindsight. The report you link on the attacked madrassa shows mistakes can and will be made. And it is indeed hard to imagine a circumstance in the border region today where a nuke would be a better choice than a conventional approach (with troops or bombs).

Thus, this whole discussion is rather odd. In some ways, it’s a Democratic game of one-upmanship, the battle for “King of Hawk Hill.” But in others ways, it is a long overdue discussion … because there seems little doubt that Al Qaeda is holed up in those tribal regions. And quite secure about it.

At the very least, I hope it sends the message to Musharraf that he’d best tend to his backyard, because others are beginning to talk about doing it for him.

3  Al wrote:

Reid, are you seriously advocating the first use of nuclear weapons?

This would set a terrible precedent. In a time when we are running around the world contemplating war on nations because they are considering a nuclear weapons program and then to use them in what is essentially a police action (granting that the Afghani hills aren’t quite a sovereign nation) would be the height of hypocrisy. It is the claim of these states that their weapons programs are only for “defensive” purposes and if the full might of the US military isn’t sufficient to defend us, how can we tell them otherwise?

Obama is entirely right. The day that the United States has to resort to such tactics is the day we give up any illusion of a moral high ground.

Comment by Al · 08/05/2007 08:16 PM
4  Reid wrote:

Let me be clear what I am “advocating.” I am advocating a retroactive hindsight use of a tactical nuke at Tora Bora, on or about Nov. 30, 2001. We could then also argue about whether we were engaged in “a police action” at that time, and how that would have been received a couple of months after Al Qaeda had done their best to lay waste to large urban areas in America.

I’ve also said “it is indeed hard to imagine a circumstance in the border region today where a nuke would be a better choice than a conventional approach.”

In other words, it’s hard to imagine a circumstance in which we have bin Laden, top lieutenants, and core followers numbering 1000+ all holed up in about a six square mile area. It’s hard to imagine that under such circumstances, our ally Musharaff would not block their escape into his country … but they didn’t. It’s hard to imagine that under such circumstances we would choose not to commit our own troops in large enough numbers to do the job conventionally … but we didn’t.

So, yes, it is incredibly hard to imagine an appropriate use of non-conventional tactics in that border area today. And, yes, nearly six years later, Tora Bora still maddens me.

As for whether it should be “on the table” (which reminds me of when Bush said he had no Iraq invasion plans “on his desk,” when they were clearly on the credenza), I’ll leave that to those fighting for King of Hawk Hill.

Which, in most ways, is really what the public aspect of this discussion is all about.

5  emcee fleshy wrote:

Tora Bora could have been done without nukes, if we had just done it ourselves. We didn’t let them escape, so much as the Pakistanis that we were counting to help us out did. Simply put, “half surrounded by us and half-surrounded by somebody else” isn’t the same as “surrounded by us”.

An aside about “Bush said he had no Iraq invasion plans ‘on his desk.’” History shows that you’re parsing the wrong word. It’s not about “desk” and “credenza”. Rather, it’s about the difference between “plan” and “intention”.

6  Reid wrote:

Sir Fleshy: “Simply put, ‘half surrounded by us and half-surrounded by somebody else’ isn’t the same as ‘surrounded by us’.”

Especially when the highest estimates I’ve seen put our “half” at 60 US SOF or CIA personnel. Gary Bernsten, CIA leader on the scene, wrote that there two teams of dozen each for most of the time, finally supplemented by one added SOF team. The battalion of Rangers he requested was denied.

As for the local tribal leaders they tried to “ally” with as they did with the Northern Alliance, in this case, these local tribal leaders had been tight with bin Laden since he arrived in Jalalabad in 1996. He’d just thrown a big dinner for them at which he’d bestowed them with belongings and money as gifts.

And then he retreated to Tora Bora.

We come along and offer the same tribal leaders money to help us drive him out. “Sure,” they say. Meanwhile, it’s been documented that Pakistan was unable to get troops into position until mid-December … two weeks too late.

They weren’t even “quarter surrounded.”

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