Pakistan, Iran and Bush's Last Months

For the next 169 days, George W. Bush will be President of the United States.  For ninety-one of those days, our attention will be focused more on the contest to succeed him than on what Bush can and should do in his remaining days in office.  

But as the President prepares for his trip to join in the staging of China’s internet-censored Olympics, the mood in his White House is uncertain.  His administration is doing its best.  But will it be enough?

Last week the calendar of a senior administration official had an entry for a meeting with “responsible skeptics” to talk about Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.  I was among them.

We talked, for an hour, about how the progress in Iraq has gone — in the opinion of General David H. Petraeus — from “tenuous and reversible” to some measure of permanence.  That enormous good news is overshadowed by the administration’s admission that we are fighting Iran’s proxies in Iraq, and that terrorists have massive “safe havens” in Pakistan.  

As the rubble that had been the World Trade Center towers still burned on September 11, 2001, I wrote a column for the Washington Times that demanded we pursue those who committed these attacks wherever they would go, deny them any sanctuary in any nation, and destroy both them and their allies.  

Published the next day, the column said, “Nations that sponsor or harbor terrorists are our enemies. We have to treat them accordingly. We must act against them, using whatever force is necessary to destroy the threat…We will have to take on other nations and other terrorist networks. We cannot let them have a moment’s peace…There must be no safe place for them to hide, and no hesitation to attack them or those who give them shelter.”

Since then, we haven’t denied terrorists safe haven in Iran, Pakistan and too many other places.

I remarked to the senior administration official that in Baghdad, in December 2005, I was briefed by a senior commander on the Iranian activities in Iraq, including the manufacture and smuggling into Iraq of the most deadly weapon used against our troops, the “explosively-formed penetrator.”  In the nearly three years since, Iran has not stopped.  Though we have disrupted some of its operations and captured some of its senior operatives — including members of the “Qods Force” of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — they still move with relative impunity across the border organizing, training, funding and supplying the terrorist insurgents.  

I asked, how can we defeat the enemy if we only fight his proxies? The senior administration official gave me a bleak look and said, “That’s hard.”  He asked if I wanted to bomb terrorist training camps, risking that we might only hit empty land, to bomb their IED factories, which we don’t usually locate in time, or something else?  

The Bush administration is apparently not prepared to do anything like that.  They are focused on Iraq, and too little else.  But what about Pakistan, which is home to terrorist safe havens?  One senior official at the meeting said these safe havens were, “the most severe safe havens problem on the planet.”  There are, he said, “…millions of Pashtun militants who sometimes fight in Afghanistan who live and train in Pakistan.”  Millions.   

I asked if the President is content to leave office with those safe havens intact?

His answer was “no,” and that the administration would “deal with it.”  Are decisive actions being taken against them, or is the President going to tolerate them as he has done for years?  The Pakistani government has placed constraints on what we can do and how we can do it.  Pakistan’s role in international terrorism affects not only us and Iraq, but beyond the Middle East and into India.

Last week’s reports on terrorist bombings of the Indian embassy in Kabul said that the CIA concluded that Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence agency — the ISI, which actively helped create the Taliban regime in Afghanistan — was directly involved in the attacks which killed 54.   Pakistan and India — both armed with deployable nuclear weapons — have been in a fifty-year armed standoff over Kashmir.  India has repeatedly accused Pakistan of harboring terrorists who attack India’s people and territory.   Both nations have put their nuclear arsenals on alert when the confrontation over Kashmir heated up.

Even if the Pakistani government gave us a free hand against the terrorist networks in its territory it is unlikely to the level of improbability that the Bush administration will do anything to materially change the situation there.  The ISI is a government-within-a-government in Pakistan. If President Bush chooses to take action against that “most severe problem on the planet” the ISI will do whatever it can to thwart us.

On January 20, 2009, we will inaugurate the 44th President of the United States.  He will inherit the most severe problems on the planet.  And not only in Pakistan.

In Iraq, the President is betting on the Maliki government to continue the development of democracy.  Bush is ready to go “all in” (in the words of one senior administration official) on the provincial elections that will probably be held in December.  He is counting on an Iraqi nationalism to overcome sectarian rivalries, Syrian and Iranian interference, and an Iraqi politician whose support for America’s presence is only as deep as his personal political interests.  

Mohamed el-Baradei, head of the UN’s usually-blind nuclear watchdog agency, said recently that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in as little as six months.  Iran refuses to even discuss cessation of nuclear enrichment.  But the President continues to rely on UN sanctions against Iran to block its nuclear ambitions.

Over two years ago, I asked a now-former senior administration official why we weren’t taking military action against the Syrian sources of terrorists entering Iraq, against the Iranians’ smuggling of weapons, people, weapons and funds into Iraq.  He said we weren’t prepared to go to war against some nations.  Which meant the President would not authorize action.  We now face the results of that inaction.

President Bush must not let his term of office expire without taking effective action against the terrorist safe havens and Iran’s nuclear weapons program. To say “it’s hard” is to substitute excuses for essential actions.  To go “all in” on Maliki and Iraq’s election is French courage behind the Maginot Line.

Overtly, and covertly, cross-border action must be taken to destroy the terrorist safe havens and – in Iran – arm and enable opposition to the regime.  In Pakistan, the new government must be under the most severe pressures we can mount to allow more strikes such as the one we mounted last week that reportedly killed several al-Queda leaders.  The Pakistanis must be told that we will protect democratic elements as best we can while we attack — again overtly and covertly — the safe havens, the ISI and its terrorist allies.  

Against Iran, much more can and must be done.  The Mujahideen e-Khalk — an Iranian opposition group — was declared a terrorist organization by the Clinton administration at the request of the Iranian regime.  MEK — feared by the mullahs in Tehran — should be removed from our terrorist list and enabled to operate in Iran.  

To continue to rely on UN sanctions to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons is folly.  As Churchill said, “It’s no use saying ‘we are doing our best.’  You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

Will President Bush do what is necessary to succeed? Color me mightily — but responsibly — skeptical.