Rumors have been circulating that the Obama administration will approve unilateral military action deeper into Pakistani territory beyond the tribal belt. A potential backlash to such a strategy is the disruption of already vulnerable U.S. and NATO supply lines running through Pakistan.
With U.S. President Barack Obama's revised Afghan strategy now under way, rumors have been spreading rapidly in both Washington and Islamabad that the Obama administration will approve drone strikes and other types of unilateral U.S. military action deeper into Pakistani territory beyond the tribal belt. These discussions are indeed taking place, but U.S. officials are also taking a hard look at the potential backlash of such a strategy — particularly, the threat to already-vulnerable U.S. and NATO supply lines running through Pakistan. The primary mission that Obama has assigned to U.S. Central Command is to neutralize al Qaeda — a mission that encompasses pursuing high-value jihadist targets in the region, knocking the momentum out of the Taliban insurgency and training Afghan security forces to help shoulder the counterterrorism burden. Obama has also articulated a plan to initiate a drawdown of forces from the region as early as the summer of 2011, depending on conditions on the ground. That means that the United States needs results, and has a strategic need to see those results sooner rather than later. This is an extremely worrying prospect for Pakistan. To escape pressure from U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, al Qaeda has shifted its safe-havens to the tribal areas in Pakistan's rugged northwest periphery with the help of select Taliban allies. If a large part of the U.S. mission is to defeat al Qaeda, then the United States can be expected to have very little regard for the Durand Line that divides the Pashtun lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The CIA and U.S. Special Forces already have a track record in carrying out covert, cross-border activity in Pakistan, ranging from human intelligence operations to unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against high-value targets, such as Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud. These operations cause Pakistan extraordinary unease, and to add insult to injury, the drones fly out of bases in Pakistan itself. In June 2008, a U.S. airstrike targeted a Pakistani paramilitary checkpoint in Mohmand Agency in the northwestern tribal area, which the Pakistani military continues to believe was deliberate targeting by their supposed ally. The United States crossed a line with Islamabad, however, in September 2008 when it went beyond routine unmanned aerial vehicle strikes and launched its most overt full-scale raid against high-value Taliban and al Qaeda targets hiding out in a town in South Waziristan. That attack ended up killing 20 people and sparked a public backlash, as Pakistani citizens charged the government and military with selling out Pakistan's national sovereignty to Washington. Pakistan decided at that point that it would have to resort to the one tool that gives Islamabad enormous leverage over Washington: control over U.S. and NATO supply lines. The United States currently depends almost exclusively on Pakistan to transport mostly non-lethal supplies (such as food, fuel and building materials) for troops fighting the war in Afghanistan. This may not be the safest route, but Pakistan does offer the shortest and most logistically viable supply lines into landlocked Afghanistan. The Pakistani supply lines originate in Karachi and then split into two separate routes. The longer and more commonly-used northern route passes through Sindh, Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Khyber Pass to the Torkham border crossing into central and northern Afghanistan. The shorter, southern route passes through Sindh to the Balochistan-Chaman border crossing into southern Afghanistan. (click here for STRATFOR Interactive map on attacks targeting U.S.-NATO supply lines) Following the September 2008 U.S. operation in South Waziristan, U.S. and NATO logistics teams ran into trouble at the port of Karachi. Within several days of the strike, Pakistani authorities suddenly demanded that the logistics teams would have to fill out all their paperwork in Urdu, and that it would be up to Pakistani authorities to determine whether their Urdu was up to Pakistani standards to allow supplies to pass through. The disruption lasted a few days. This was essentially Pakistan's way of signaling to the United States that it was not going to tolerate unilateral U.S. military action in Pakistan and that the consequences of such action would be a supply cut-off to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan has since caused sporadic disruptions to the supply lines, usually by citing security concerns and closing the border crossings at Torkham and Chaman for days at a time. And though Pakistan has been battling its own jihadist insurgency for several years now, militant attacks on the supply lines only picked up at the end of 2008 when U.S.-Pakistani tensions were running particularly high following the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. This phenomenon has been discussed among officials in New Delhi and Washington, though no evidence has been presented to demonstrate a direct link between the sudden uptick in attacks and an increase of U.S. pressure on Pakistan. Pakistan-based jihadists have their own incentive to wreak havoc on U.S./NATO supply lines into Afghanistan, but Pakistan's murky militant landscape could also provide the Pakistani military and intelligence services with the means to disrupt the supply lines should the political need arise. Now that the United States is pursuing a more aggressive posture in targeting high-value militants on Pakistani soil, the Pakistani military and government have an even greater strategic incentive to hold U.S./NATO supply lines hostage. Pakistan and the United States cannot agree to disagree on their definitions of "good" versus "bad" Taliban. While Pakistan is serious about pursuing TTP militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani state, it does not want to incur the backlash of pursuing those militants and allies of al Qaeda whose focus is on Afghanistan, most notably the Haqqani network and Hafiz Gul Bahadir in North Waziristan, Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan, and the Mullah Omar-led group of Afghan Taliban in the Pashtun belt of Balochistan. Pakistan's intelligence services have a delicate network of alliances to maintain within each of these networks, and from Islamabad's point of view, strikes by U.S. Hellfire missiles do not particularly help in this regard. Pakistan is particularly concerned about the United States going beyond the tribal areas and pursuing militants closer to the Pakistani core. While the Pakistani public has become more or less tolerant of drone strikes in FATA, the idea of a U.S. drone going after Mullah Omar in Balochistan province is another matter entirely. FATA is an autonomous region, where the writ of the Pakistani state does not reach very far. Balochistan, in spite of its own separatist tendencies, is still an integral piece of the Pakistani state. The public backlash from the September 2008 attack in South Waziristan was notable — to the point where even the Pakistani army chief gave orders to Pakistani forces to fire on U.S. drones — but U.S. military operations in Balochistan would trigger a much more intense and violent response. And then there is the issue of Punjab — the Pakistani heartland — where the population, military, industry and agriculture are concentrated. Several TTP attacks in the past week have taken place in Punjab, with the most recent suicide attack against an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) facility in Multan. Though the Pakistani Taliban has nowhere near the support network in Punjab than it has in the Pashtun-dominated northwestern tribal badlands, these attacks are spreading fears that the TTP has activated a preexisting social support network of radical Islamists in southern Punjab. The last thing the Pakistani military wants is to be drawn into military operations in the Pakistani core, but the Pakistani military cannot afford to see U.S. operations expand to Punjab. Such a possibility, though remote, would cause a major crisis of confidence within an already embattled military, whose loss of internal coherence would pose a direct threat to the survival of the state. The United States is thus caught in a dilemma. On one hand, it's on a tight timeline to achieve results in defeating al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan so that it can move on to other pressing issues beyond South Asia. On the other hand, the means that the United States would use in defeating al Qaeda run a good chance of seriously destabilizing Pakistan, a nuclear-armed ally whose cooperation is essential to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The United States has begun tackling this dilemma by depriving Pakistan of at least some of the leverage it holds through the supply lines. Washington has been in negotiations with Moscow for roughly a year to develop a supplemental supply line through the former Soviet Union, and is now at a point where the two are working on the details of an agreement to transport U.S. and NATO supplies from the Latvian port of Riga through Russia and into Afghanistan. This is one of several alternate routes, but any route through the Central Asian states or through Ukraine and Romania would still require the White House to deal with the Kremlin, a lesson the United States learned the hard way. The supplemental supply routes through the former Soviet Union cannot replace the routes through Pakistan, and are resting on an extremely shaky political foundation. After all, Russia is more than happy to make Washington more dependent on Moscow for its mission in Afghanistan since the Kremlin would then have the ability to cut the supply line whenever U.S.-Russian political negotiations go south. Even as plans are in the works for a supplemental supply line through the former Soviet Union, Washington knows there is still no going around Pakistan. Between a raging jihadist insurgency, an economy in turmoil and a government on the verge of collapse, Pakistan is already under a great deal of pressure. An increase in U.S. military operations on Pakistani soil going beyond the tribal badlands could well be the final straw. The United States is thus in a quandary: How does it achieve its goals on the western periphery of Pakistan without creating anarchy in its core? Pakistani authorities are now tasked with making the United States understand just how fragile their situation is, and if those appeals don't work, Pakistan's alternate plan will likely be to hold U.S./NATO supply lines hostage.