By Paul Rogers.
A war of automatons
In these circumstances, a serious rethink of policies might be expected. Instead, a further escalation seems more likely - rather like the much-vaunted surge in Iraq, but applied to western Pakistan. There are two pointers in particular to the way the American side of the strategy there might proceed.
The first is the construction of a large US military base at the Ghaki pass, just inside the Afghan border with Pakistan (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "A fight to the death on Pakistan's border", Asia Times, 16 July 2007). This is a substantial addition to the two major US facilities elsewhere in Afghanistan - at Kandahar and Bagram - and looks remarkably well situated to conduct operations in Pakistan.
The second is the decision to deploy an entirely new weapons system, an armed drone known as the MQ-9 Reaper. Smaller reconnaissance drones such as the MQ-1 Predator have become major features of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some of these have been equipped with two Hellfire missiles.
The Reaper is on a different scale altogether. For a start, it is four times heavier than a Predator and is the size of a fighter aircraft. Moreover, it is heavily armed and able to carry up to fourteen Hellfire missiles. It has twice the speed of the Predator yet can cruise at much lower speeds, loitering over potential target areas for up to fourteen hours at a time (see Charles J Hanley, "Robot Air Attack Squadron Bound for Iraq", AP, 16 July 2007).
This pilotless aircraft is launched under the control of local crew, but once in the air each drone is operated by two other "crew" based thousands of miles away at Creech air-force base in Nevada, connected by a real-time satellite link. At least nine of the robotic aircraft have already been built by General Atomics; sixty or more are likely to be deployed, initially in Afghanistan and then in Iraq over the next few months.
From a US perspective such automated warfare would have the advantage that US aircrew would not have to overfly Pakistan: they could merely direct the Reapers to hit targets anywhere in western Pakistan from the safety of Nevada.
The exact political impact of such operations in Pakistan is difficult to gauge; but past experience indicates that they would provoke a very strong public reaction, possibly sufficient to destabilise a Pervez Musharraf regime already beset by many other problems. Yet it now looks possible that the Bush administration is prepared to take the risk of losing a leader it still regards as a major ally. The predicament of the war on terror is such that almost anything goes, even the possibility of violent regime change in Pakistan. A fundamental rethink remains out of sight.