August 2, 2007 | Commentary on Middle East
In an "I am too tougher than Hillary" speech, Sen. Barack Obama warned Pakistan yesterday that as commander-in-chief he might act unilaterally if Islamabad didn't do more against the terrorists there.
"Let me make this clear . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, I will," the Democratic presidential candidate told a Washington audience in his first comprehensive speech on terrorism.
There's nothing wrong with Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) talking tough on terrorism - though he's seemingly coming to it a little bit late in the campaign. But there are a couple of things in his proposal that should be addressed.
First, there was little new in Obama's proposition for fighting al Qaeda. In fact, he might be alarmed to learn that he's basically taken a long-standing page from the Bush administration's playbook in the War on Terror.
President Bush has already made it clear on numerous occasions that he'd do what whatever was necessary to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives - especially the likes of Osama bin Laden - if we had actionable intelligence to do so.
But an attack on Pakistan's terrority that isn't unauthorized by that nation's government - which is what Obama seemed to be suggesting - is a pretty risky proposition, especially if it involved a large number of U.S. troops pouring over the Afghan border into Pakistan.
Taking this sort of large-scale action - or any other unilateral action - without prior consultation with Islamabad could easily lead to the downfall of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government.
Musharraf is already on shaky ground. His government has faced a number of crises in recent months - including the seizure of the Red Mosque, terror attacks and the (now overturned) firing of a the country's top justice - leading to a serious slide in his popularity.
The fall of Musharraf's government might well lead to a takeover by pro-U.S. elements of the Pakistani military - but other possible outcomes are extremely unpleasant, including the ascendance of Islamist factions.
The last thing we need is for Islamabad to fall to the extremists. That would exacerbate the problem of those terrorist safe havens that Obama apparently thinks he could invade.
And it would also put Pakistan's nuclear arsenal into the wrong hands.
That could lead to a number of nightmarish scenarios - a nuclear war with India over Kashmir, say, or the use of nuclear weapons by a terrorist group against any number of targets, including the United States.
The best route for dealing with Pakistan is mild pressure and cooperation - not threats. Musharraf hasn't been a perfect ally, but for the moment he's our best bet for fighting terrorism, especially al Qaeda, in Pakistan.
And we have seen cooperation from Musharraf on al Qaeda. Pakistan has turned over hundreds of al Qaeda operatives to the United States. Indeed, more Qaeda bigs have been captured on joint operations in Pakistan than anywhere else.
Last fall, a U.S. Predator drone fired a missile at a compound in Pakistan where al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al Zawahiri was reported to be dining. The strike - coordinated with Pakistan - missed Zawahiri by just a few hours.
And, as result of recent events in Pakistan, Musharraf has sent at least two brigades of the Pakistani army back into the tribal area along the Afghan-Pakistan border to engage the militants that have found safe haven there.
The best way to fight extremism, terrorism and insurgencies is with indigenous forces: They know the streets and the terrain - and have the inside track with the locals on getting intelligence on the bad guys.
Of course, our Special Operations Forces (SOF) and CIA paramilitary intelligence operatives, who speak the local language, know the culture and move stealthily in small units can really help local forces process targets, too. In fact, it's very likely that U.S. SOF and CIA operations officers are in Pakistan now, operating with Pakistani forces against extremists and terrorists, including al Qaeda.
There's no reason to doubt that this sort of cooperation from Musharraf will continue - especially after the wake-up call he got after being under the gun from Islamic extremists and terrorists in recent weeks.
While the United States should keep every option on the table for fighting terrorism, including the use of unilateral action when necessary, it's critical we work with allies in the War on Terror as much as possible.
Peter Brookes is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
First appeared in the New York Post