Are Pakistan and the United States on the Brink of War?

As the United States steps up border raids into Pakistan, troops from both countries have commenced a deadly game of brinksmanship. Although aimed at asserting each other’s military presence along the Pakistan-Afghan border, the skirmishes risk outright hostilities.

U.S. strikes in Pakistan are nothing new. Washington has conducted unilateral missile strikes since soon after its invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. American pilotless surveillance planes have been flying over the restive border with near impunity for much the same time.

From Air to Ground

But the tone of the U.S. presence changed this year. In July, President George W. Bush approved covert ground raids into suspected militant hideouts in the Waziristan region of Pakistan, much of which is a Taliban stronghold. Militants use the region as a sanctuary from which to strike foreign and Afghan troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Thus far, U.S. forces attempted at least three ground assaults. The only confirmed ground invasion of Pakistan, on September 3, led to the deaths of around 20 civilians, including women and children. No militant leaders were believed captured or killed in the raid.

This ground assault led to unprecedented rhetoric from Pakistan condemning the United States. Even Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, normally quite evasive with the media, said that the Army would defend Pakistan’s territory. The Pakistani government summoned the U.S. ambassador to the foreign office and blocked NATO supplies vital to the multinational force’s continued operation in Afghanistan.

Pakistan averted two other attempted ground raids when its border forces fired warning shots at U.S. helicopters ferrying commandos into Waziristan. On the most recent occasion, Pakistan and U.S. troops exchanged fire for five minutes. Pakistan’s government later claimed that its army fired flares, not bullets, at the helicopters, but this explanation did not sound very convincing.

Ostensibly, Washington fears that Waziristan – and other tribal regions – could become a staging area for further attacks on the United States if the Pakistani army doesn’t root out pro-Taliban forces. But Washington doubts whether Islamabad is capable of doing the job.

More broadly, U.S. policy in the region is increasingly shaped by its failure to establish unequivocal dominance in Iraq. With the War on Terror overshadowing U.S. foreign policy for the foreseeable future, the next U.S. president will have to deliver victory in some form to a skeptical public. That is the ultimate legacy of the September 11 hijackers, and the Bush administration.

The Next Target

That victory will most likely not come out of the violence and political mess of Iraq. Although the Bush administration and both presidential candidates support a significant, continued military presence in Iraq, the United States has accepted that it can’t control the entire country by direct military force. It may have had some success in marginalizing al-Qaeda in Iraq – after initially spurring its growth – but it has also been forced to accept Shia domination of domestic politics.

Iran was seriously mooted as the next frontline and even now experiences tremendous diplomatic pressure from Washington. But it’s difficult for the United States to promote the Shia state as the next front in the War on Terror, however much Israel or its lobby in the United States may favor this path. Iran doesn’t pose an immediate threat, nor would it afford a quick and easy military campaign. Rather, war with Iran would almost certainly lead to a severe disruption of global energy supplies and the world economy.

Pakistan, in comparison, is an irresistible target. The United States claims to have evidence that the government supports jihadis that wage war against the United States and NATO in Afghanistan. Even a limited, covert war, directed at militants, not the Pakistan Army, is arguably the easiest sell the United States has ever had to make since the 1990 war with Iraq. The only factor preventing all-out conflict is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.


U.S. raids and missile strikes may be an attempt to see how far it can go with Pakistan. After Pervez Musharraf stepped down as president, the United States felt uninhibited by the concern that its Pakistan interventions were impairing a staunch ally. There have been as many missile strikes this year as in the previous seven.

Pakistan has engaged in loud rhetoric decrying the attacks and asserted it won’t tolerate intrusions into its territory. Strong public criticism was inevitable to placate a population deeply resentful of the U.S. presence in the region. Both civilian and military leaders have to guard against forces, such as rival politicians or upstart officers, using the crisis to leverage power.

Even internationally, if Pakistan hadn’t condemned the U.S. attacks, it would have tacitly acknowledged that it can’t address the militant problem on its own. That would be an open invitation to more interference from foreign armies and, potentially down the road, international isolation as a failed state.

Pakistan, as it currently exists, relies on U.S. patronage for its survival. There’s very little it can do if the United States decides to step up its military presence in Pakistan. According to the State Department, the United States has given Pakistan $2.4 billion in "security assistance" and $3.4 billion in economic assistance over the past seven years. Pakistan has obtained a raft of loans and credits from international financial institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank since its rehabilitation by the United States after September 11.

Despite the cold-headed realism, there’s a real danger that future confrontations between Pakistan and U.S. troops could escalate into outright hostilities. The Pakistani army’s rank-and-file is deeply uneasy about military operations that have killed several thousand fellow citizens and Muslims at the behest of Washington, not Islamabad. Pakistan border posts may welcome any future U.S. intrusion into Pakistan as an opportunity to assert their country’s independence.

U.S. and NATO commanders in Afghanistan also resent what they see as Pakistan’s unwillingness to stop militants from attacking their troops from hideouts in Pakistan. U.S. Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright recently told Congress that 30-40% of the attacks in Afghanistan come from Pakistan, an increasing proportion. American commanders may not need much persuasion to fire on Pakistani forces if they are seen to be getting in the way of militant targets. Even a standoff could accidentally escalate into all-out hostilities.

If substantial casualties ensue, Islamabad and Washington might be hard-pressed to soothe popular calls for revenge.


Mustafa Qadri, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a freelance journalist from Australia reporting from Pakistan. His website is This article was first published in FPIF. Photo from Flickr