About two weeks ago, the world’s attention suddenly turned to a dramatic battle in Pakistan. The Pakistani Army, we were told, had trapped a large force of al Qaeda, including a "high-value target," possibly Ayman Zawahiri. The Pakistanis brought in artillery and air power. The fate of the al Qaeda fighters was sealed.
Then the whole thing evaporated into thin air. First, Zawahiri wasn’t there. Then no other "high-value target" was there either. The Pakistani Army invited local tribal elders to mediate, declaring a cease-fire while they did so – not the sort of thing you do when you are winning. Pakistani Army units elsewhere in the tribal territories came under attack. Finally the whole business just dropped out of sight, ending not with a bang but a whimper.
What really happened? At this point, if anyone knows they are not telling. But that is not the important question. The important question is, what didn’t happen?
What did not happen is that a force of irregulars – maybe al Qaeda, maybe Taliban, certainly local tribal fighters – was trapped by a state military and beaten. That is a very significant non-event. Normally, non-state irregulars cannot stand against state armed forces. Once they are located and pinned down, the state armed forces can use their vastly superior firepower to win an easy and guaranteed victory. They just keep up the bombardment until those left alive have little if any fight left in them (remember, these irregulars are not exactly the German Army at the Somme).
Here, the firepower was employed. The Pakistani Army used both artillery and attack helicopters. But it did not win. If it had won, you can be certain Islamabad would be trumpeting the victory. The fact that the battle became a non-event says that the forces of the state of Pakistan did not win.
What does this failure mean? The Washington Post quoted a retired Pakistani Army general as saying, "The state has to win this battle or its credibility will be destroyed." I suspect the general is correct. In fact, I will go further: I think the failure of the Pakistani Army to win this battle marks the beginning of the end for Pakistan’s current President, General Musharraf. The defensive victory of the tribal fighters will turn into an offensive victory, giving courage and a sense of inevitable victory to Musharraf’s enemies while causing near-revolt in Musharraf’s base, the army itself. Before the year is out, I suspect we will see General Musharraf’s head impaled on a pike and surging Pashtun crowds proclaiming Osama as their leader.
At that point the American strategic failures that are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have transformed themselves into an American strategic disaster. As I have said before in On War, Iraq and Afghanistan themselves mean little. The centers of gravity in this war are Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. What is important about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is how they affect these other countries and their pro-American governments.
Our friends in the Middle East have warned us that the spillover effects are not likely to be positive. That has now proven to be the case. The Pakistani Army went into the Tribal Territories – something it has long known is not a good idea – under American pressure, as part of the current American "big push" in Afghanistan. In effect, the American generals in command in Afghanistan made the typical German mistake: they sacrificed the strategic situation to benefit their operational plan. As did the Germans, we will find that blunder tends to win the campaign at the price of losing the war.
Meanwhile, adding insult to injury, the putative first target in this failed operation, al Qaeda’s Mr. Zawahiri, issued an audiotape in which he cocked a snook at General Musharraf, damned him for sending his "miserable" army against the tribesmen and called on the humiliated Pakistani Army to revolt. I suspect the bad fairy of militant Islam will grant him that wish. Al Qaeda’s strategic victory in Spain will be followed by a vastly more significant strategic victory in Pakistan, while the U.S. contents itself with bombing an occasional Afghan orphanage from 20,000 feet.
Am I the only one who can see where this is all going? But perhaps it helps to be a German military historian…
WILLIAM S. LIND is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.