The U.S. Air Wars over Pakistan

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The smoke is lifting from the air war the U.S. is waging in Pakistan. Yes, a U.S.-Pakistani probe has found, U.S. helicopters did attack and kill two Pakistani Frontier Scouts — members of the Pakistani military — in a border outpost near Afghanistan on September 30. They fired on the outpost because shots came from it, the investigation found. Alas, the probe concluded, the shots had been fired by the Pakistanis “in an attempt to warn the helicopters of their presence,” a Pentagon statement says.

(Note to Islamabad: warning armed helicopters flying over one of the world’s most dangerous regions that you’re friendly — by firing guns as they pass by — is ill-advised.)

“I wanted to send my most sincere condolences for the regrettable loss of your soldiers killed and wounded on 30 September near your border with Afghanistan,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has written in a letter of apology to Gen. Ashhaq Parvez Kayani, the Army chief of staff. “The death of our soldiers in combat is always tragic, but under these circumstances, it is even more difficult to accept.” Not to mention the fact that it has led the Pakistani government to shut down one of the two major routes into Afghanistan, turning fuel trucks waiting to cross the border into Roman candles for RPG-equipped militants.

The tragedy highlights the dangers of aerial warfare, but one that military scholar Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says must be waged if the U.S. and its allies are going to have any chance of success in Afghanistan. In fact, he argues in a report released Thursday, the U.S. military is actually conducting four different air wars over Pakistan:

— It is using unmanned drones to support U.S. forces in “hot pursuit” in the border area.

— It is using drones to attack Taliban and other insurgent forces near the border to limit their capability to operate in Afghanistan.

— It is striking at insurgent and terrorist leaders and training camps inside the tribal areas in Waziristan.

— It sometimes supports Pakistani forces in strikes against the Pakistani Taliban.

“Fighting a war in Afghanistan that given the enemy a sanctuary in Pakistan, and al Qaeda immunity in Pakistan, has little point,” Cordesman says. “More bluntly, if Pakistan cannot provide at least enough cooperation to passively allow such strikes, it is not an ally, it is a major strategic liability.