An Al Qaeda big shot, Abu Laith al-Libi, has apparently been killed in Pakistan by a missile fired from an American Predator drone probably operated by the CIA. That’s good news, of course, but we shouldn’t get carried away. There are lots more bad guys where he was hiding, and neither the Pakistani nor the U.S. authorities have been willing to go after them—the former for complicated internal political reasons, the latter for fear of offending and embarrassing the government of Pakistan.
The administration’s working hypothesis has been that Pervez Musharraf will do our dirty work for us in the western tribal areas of Pakistan, and that allowing American forces to operate there unilaterally would only undermine his regime. That calculus should start to shift now that it is apparent that Musharraf has not done nearly as much as he promised to battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban and now that his own legitimacy with the Pakistani people is almost nonexistent anyway. We need to do what we can to fight back against the Islamist extremists who are consolidating their hold on the frontier regions, thus threatening both Pakistan and Afghanistan. That could involve taking some of the fetters off the CIA and the Special Operations Forces and letting them conduct more targeted hits.
But if we’ve learned anything in Iraq it is that killing or capturing terrorist big shots isn’t enough. Special operators had success taking down everyone from Saddam Hussein to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and none of it made much difference to the overall goal of pacifying Iraq. We only made real strides when large numbers of American troops were deployed to mount classic counterinsurgency operations, which means securing the people against insurgent attacks. There is scant prospect at the moment that American troops in large numbers will be deployed to conduct such operations in Pakistan. That is, in fact, almost inconceivable barring another 9/11-style attack emanating from that area. (Unfortunately such an atrocity itself is by no means inconceivable.)
In the interim, the U.S. is trying to do what it can to help the Pakistani armed forces and perhaps tribal forces to take on the extremists. Those efforts haven’t shown much success so far, but they are now one of the most critical fronts in the war on terror, and they need to be a top priority for the administration in its waning days in office.