Only two days ago top military brass, including Centcom Commander General David Petraeus, were openly calling Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad a “lone wolf” who had acted alone, and scoffing at any reports of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) involvement.
Today Attorney General Eric Holder signaled a new official stance on the attack, declaring on multiple Sunday news shows that the US now has evidence that the TTP was behind the attempt, called “amateurish” by police.
Exactly where the Obama Administration goes from here is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that at this point all eyes are on Pakistan and that the Obama Administration’s recent praise of Pakistan’s internal policy is over.
At the start of 2009 only tiny Bajaur was being attacked by Pakistan’s military, after considerable US harranguing Pakistan now has ongoing offensives in half the tribal areas and lingering hostilities in Malakand, in the NWFP (Now Khyber-Pakhtoonwa), with some 200,000 troops committed along its northern frontier in US-demanded wars.
Once touted as proof of the floundering Zardari government’s loyalty to the US, the offensives and the almost ridiculous lengths to which the military has suspended civil liberties in the tribal areas are falling so short of American expectations that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday threatened “very serious consequences” against Pakistan over the Times Square bombing and said she expected the Zardari government to do more against militants.
On the other hand it is unclear what, if anything, Pakistan could theoretically do to placate the US. Constantly having to commit a significant portion of its force to its eastern border with India, the nearly bankrupt Pakistani government would be hard pressed to commit many more troops to the Afghan frontier. Even if they do, the offensives have done little but chase tribesmen out of their homes, and the militant leaders, from the TTP and other groups, simply blend into the background and reemerge at a later date.
Much as the failed Christmas Day attack led to knee-jerk calls to launch a full scale invasion of Yemen, or at the very least a large number of air strikes (ironically the US launched two major air strikes against Yemen before the ostensible casus belli came along), Times Square now has people openly talking about a reaction against Pakistan, up to and including the threat of putting “boots on the ground.”
As with Yemen, however, the US has really been attacking Pakistan all along, killing some 700 civilians in 44 drone attacks in 2009 alone. And perhaps even more-so than with Yemen, the evidence is overwhelming that the attack didn’t happen in a vacuum, and that the US attacks and constant US meddling in Pakistan is actually fueling the insurgency, which didn’t exist in any serious form until the 2001 US invasion of neighboring Afghanistan.
Those US drone strikes have now gotten so onerous that it should be no surprise that the TTP and others are looking to strike back at the US, and while the troops in Afghanistan and certainly the closer, more convenient target, attacks on the US mainland are on the table whenever practical. It is entirely uncontroversial at this point to note that the Times Square attempt was retaliation for the US attacks, though looking for a less provocative way to deal with the troubled region appears never to be considered: only escalation is treated as a real option.
It is unclear what, if anything,the “boots on the ground” approach would even hope to accomplish in Pakistan, other than turn the anti-US sentiment and increasing weariness with the corrupt Zardari government into a full-on insurrection nationwide. Already hanging on by a thread, Pakistan’s civilian government can ill afford the challenge of trying to sell a US ground invasion to the public.
Still, popular sentiment will demand a US response to the incident, no matter how ill-conceived. Escalating the drone strikes against the tribal area would scarcely register as a response at this point, after all, President Obama has done that so many times in his 16 months in office one might imagine it to be a necessary bodily function for him. Whatever options are left, all seem a recipe for sabotaging US relations with Pakistan for a generation or more, and a ground invasion would likely tear the country’s government asunder and leave the US with not just a failed state of 28 million people to contend with, but a pair of bordering failed states with a combined population of nearly 200 million.