Attacking your allies: it’s just not done

Dateline: 07 August 2007

Britain’s new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, recently made his first visit to the US since assuming power. I want you to imagine that a candidate for President said that we all know there are terrorists in London and “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and Gordon Brown won’t act, we will.”

I think you can guarantee there would be a storm of protest from other politicians and the media. A Presidential candidate threatening to invade Britain, or make some sort of strike into Britain without the co-operation of the British government would be a massive story. All other candidates would disown the statement. Congress would condemn it. If it came from one of the frontrunners, that candidate’s rivals would make booming denunciations in public, and laugh themselves silly in private. One fewer rival to worry about.

Of course, Britain is a key ally in the War on Terror, and even John Edwards, who thinks the War on Terror is a bumper sticker, probably knows that. There are not many alliances as close as that between Britain and America. America depends on no foreign leader as much as on Gordon Brown, except, perhaps, just one.

America’s most critical ally is rather lower profile than Britain, but overall probably more important, and it is Pakistan. President Musharraf inherited a country in which the army and, especially, the intelligence services were heavily infiltrated by Islamists. However, Islamist parties are not hugely popular in the country. An alliance of several fundamentalist groups achieved just 11.3% in the 2002 elections. Musharraf has focused strongly on modernizing the country and moving it closer to the West.

There is no doubt that Taleban and al Qaeda fighters, fleeing Afghanistan, are holed up in Pakistan. I have no doubt that there are special forces from Britain and America there now looking for Osama bin Laden, who is very likely to be in Pakistan. Behind the scenes, operatives from the CIA and Britain’s MI6 are no doubt helping Musharraf to remove Islamist infiltrators from his military intelligence. It is all probably rather unsavory. I have no doubt that people are being quietly killed without any sort of trial. This is the front line in the War on Terror. It is nowhere near as high profile as Iraq, where we have tempted the terrorists out into the open, but it is at least as important.

But to go back to the words I quoted in the first paragraph, they are the words of Barack Obama speaking of Pakistan. He said, of course, ‘President Musharraf’ and not ‘Gordon Brown’. But the implication is the same. He is willing to attack the territory of a key ally, perhaps the key ally in the War on Terror. Such a willingness may not be completely stupid. If Musharraf’s government falters or falls, there may be a need to act in Pakistan. But speaking of such plans in an election campaign only makes this scenario more likely. Undermining Musharraf’s government is the last thing any US Senator should be doing.

Is the Pentagon wargaming a possible attack on Pakistan? Probably. They like to prepare for any eventuality. Is this something we should enter lightly? Definitely not. Pakistan has three times the population of Afghanistan and Iraq combined. It also has nuclear weapons. Obama’s statement could weaken Musharraf’s government and make the horrible prospect of war with Pakistan more likely. It is probably the most irresponsible thing that any candidate for President has ever said.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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