No aspect of counterinsurgency warfare is more vexing–or more important–than trying to prevent cross-border infiltrations. If there is one factor, more than any other, that determines the success or failure of any insurgency, it is whether the guerrillas are able to receive support from neighboring countries. If the battlefield can be effectively “isolated,” the result is likely to be another Philippine Insurrection or Malay Emergency–a win for the counterinsurgents. If, on the other hand, the guerrillas (or, if you prefer, terrorists) are able to receive cross-border resupply, the result is more likely to be a repeat of the North Vietnamese victory against the South or the mujahideen‘s victory against the Red Army.
Both of the wars the U.S. is fighting at the moment–in Afghanistan and Iraq–have significant cross-border components. In the case of the former, Pakistan has been a safe haven for the Taliban; in the case of the latter, Syria has been a conduit for Sunni suicide bombers and Iran has been a training ground for Shiite militants and a supplier of their munitions. Until fairly recently, the Bush administration’s response to these warlike acts was fairly restrained–more tough talk than tough action. But now, in the administration’s waning days, the gloves seem to be coming off. In addition to stepping up missile-firings by unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan’s frontier regions, the administration authorized at least one Special Operations raid into Pakistan another into Syria.
Both raids have met with predictable outrage in Pakistan and Syria. The incursion into Pakistan has also been condemned by some American analysts, who think that such violations of Pakistani territory are unwise because they will aggravate the people of Pakistan whose support we need to defeat the militants. This concern is a legitimate one, though it needs to be balanced against the fact that the Pakistani military has shown a decided lack of both enthusiasm and skill for rooting out these threats on their own.
The incursion into Syria should raise fewer concerns, since there is no doubt that the government in Damascus is hostile to us, while the one in Islamabad is, at least ostensibly, allied with us. By hitting the ratlines that facilitate the infiltration of terrorists into Iraq, we send a powerful message to Bashar Assad: that he risks further erosion of his own sovereignty unless he does more to respect Iraqi sovereignty. That is a message we should have sent long ago.