Deepening US Special Ops Forces in Pakistan

Julian Barnes has a good story in today’s Wall Street Journal on the expanding and deepening boots on the ground role of US special operations forces in the Pakistan border region.  It is well sourced and reported, and overall points to a deeper cooperation with the Pakistan military.  I wanted to flag a couple of things.

First, the special ops units are going on aid missions, and as the article notes, they sometimes do so in civilian dress:

The Special Operations teams join the aid missions only when commanders determine there is relatively little security risk, a senior U.S. military official said, in an effort to avoid direct engagement that would call attention to U.S. participation.  The U.S. troops are allowed to defend themselves and return fire if attacked. But the official emphasized the joint missions aren’t supposed to be combat operations, and the Americans often participate in civilian garb.

The rules for when uniforms are required or not, and when non-standard uniforms are permitted, are more complicated and context dependent than many realize.  The dean of the Department of Defense laws of war studies, a friend and adjunct professor at my law school, Hays Parks, has written several articles addressing the technicalities of uniforms, but the bottom line is that the rule is not that servicepeople always have to perform their duties in standard military uniforms.  Special forces personnel operating with Northern Alliance groups early in the Afghan conflict, for example, dressed like the Northern Alliance groups – there was no obligation to call attention to oneself through one’s uniform as specifically US military.

The on the ground effort signals a greater emphasis on counterinsurgency by the Pakistani army itself, as it has gradually come to see itself in a war inside Pakistan against its own Taliban enemies, and not simply as a staging area for the Afghan fighting.  As Adam Entous of Reuter’s noted in an excellent article a few weeks ago, this is a shift for the Pakistan military and for the US as well.  Drone strikes, for example, are occurring in Pakistan no longer as simply part of the US counterterrorism strategy of seeking to strike at terrorists in their safe havens, but as part of regular combat.  It is a distinct strategic role in which the US is supplying an air weapon for the Pakistani army, and, as this article suggests, money and equipment for counterinsurgency as well.

During the past two years, Pakistan has stepped up military operations against the militant groups that operate in the tribal areas. Although Washington has praised the Pakistani offensives, Pentagon officials have said Pakistan’s military needs help winning support among tribal elders. If successful, the joint missions and projects may help the Pakistani military retain control of areas in South Waziristan, the Swat valley and other border regions they have cleared of militants.

The use of drones, then, needs to be understood in two different strategic contexts – an air weapon in an overt war, alongside the high value, intelligence driven targeting of terrorist leadership that has mostly been the center of attention.  I’ve been having conversations with various journalists in the past couple of weeks; I am struck by their perception – accurate – that drone strikes have been on the increase in Pakistan, but their unawareness of the differing roles, combat counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism that in part accounts for the rise in drone use.  (In another post, I’ll take up the questions of counterinsurgency strategy; I have a somewhat different perspective, having seen it for many years through the lens of a human rights monitor seeing how it sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t, in conflicts in which the US was not, or was only peripherally, involved.  Wars in Latin America, and other places.)