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Gen Petraeus turns up the heat on Pakistan, Afghanistan

It’s not just Pakistan where the United States has stepped up air raids against members of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Last month, U.S-led NATO planes in Afghanistan conducted 700 missions, more than twice the number for the same month the previous year. It was also one of the highest single-month totals of the nine-year Afghan War, the military-focused Danger Room blog said, citing U.S. Air Force statistics.

September was also the month when missile strikes by unmanned U.S. drone planes in northwest Pakistan hit the highest level of 20 since America launched its secret war inside Pakistan, widely seen as the main battleground of the Afghan war because of the sanctuary provided to top al Qaeda and Taliban. And as if that was not enough, NATO helicopters from Afghanistan crossed the border on at least three occasions, triggering a firestorm of criticism in Pakistan which closed off the supply lines to the foreign troops in Afghanistan.

Is there a pattern to this ? Has America under new commander General David Petraeus turned up the heat on Pakistan and Afghanistan ahead of a strategy review in December and before next July’s planned beginning of a troop drawdown ? While there have been spikes in the past, this looks like part of a creeping rise in the use of air power, which had been eschewed by former commander LieutenantGeneral Stanley McChrystal because of the risk of civilian casualties from the raids. NATO planes carried out 500 sorties in August, up from 405 for the same month the previous year.

Some of the rise in the use of air raids can be attributed to the surge itself – with more troops on the ground and in harm’s way, you can expect them to call in air support more often. More troops means more hard fighting as they go out and engage the enemy where previously they didn’t. They will also go into areas they were earlier too stretched to enter. All this means greater use of air power.

But its more than just the surge, says Noah Shachtman in that piece for Danger Room. Since Petraeus took command in June, air strikes have gone up each month, and every increase has been greater than the previous month. Surveillance flights have increased three-fold since last year, reflecting a new, lethal phase of the Afghan war. There had been speculation that the new general would ease some of the restrictions that McChrystal had placed on the use of air power following a series of raids gone wrong and which fueled Afghan anger. Shachtman says :

Petraeus’ history in Iraq also suggested a greater willingness to bomb adversaries, despite the concerns about civilian casualties. Lethal, munitions-dropping sorties more-than-quadrupled under Petraeus’ leadership.

U.S. military leaders, however, said earlier this summer, there would not be any major changes to the rules of engagement. But on the ground, in Pakistan certainly, concerns have grown about a new, more aggressive U.S. war strategy. Imtiaz Gul heads the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies and has written a book called The Most Dangerous Place, says the Pakistani military is increasingly concerned about Petraeus’s plans for AF-PAK including imposing a policy of hot pursuit under which foreign forces can enter Pakistani territory in search of militants. Gul writes in Foreign Policy that some Pakistani military officials believe the general ordered the NATO incursions to test the waters ahead of an expanded air war over Waziristan which the U.S. military says is the origin of half the attacks in Afghanistan.

NATO has apologised for the deaths of three Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border strike by a NATO gunship in the most serious incident, after which Pakistani authorities re-opened the Khyber pass route for NATO supplies to move into Afghanistan. But they remain deeply suspicious of American motives, and this week the Pakistani press reported another, small and fleeting incursion by a NATO helicopter in the southern stretch of the border. The two sides are due to a hold a strategic dialogue in Washington next week under the shadow of these incursions that strike at the heart of Pakistan’s identity as a sovereign nation,.

The obvious question to ask is how does this new aggressive U.S. military policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan square up with the bid to seek a negotiated settlement with the Taliban as a flurry of reports over the past week have suggested, The United States has given its backing to these informal preliminary exchanges that appear to be more like talks about talks than any negotiation. But still the idea that America has intensified the war against the Taliban just as different players including Pakistan have opened up lines of engagement to them is intriguing. Or perhaps if you looked at it another way, is America bringing its military muscle to bear on the engagement process ? Force the pace perhaps by turning up the heat on the Taliban leadership ?

But as independent analyst Matt Waldman tells the New York Times its hard to see the Taliban coming to the negotiating table, forced by U.S. pounding of their hideouts. If anything , escalating the war against them can only lead to the rise of a new class of leaders more committed to fighting.

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