Could we be witnessing the beginning of yet another calamitous foreign misadventure?
Last week, Defence Secretary Robert Gates stated the U.S. is "willing" to send a "small number" of U.S. combat troops to Pakistan to fight the spreading insurgency in its Pashtun tribal areas.
U.S. Special Forces and CIA air and ground units have long staged incursions into Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border -- in spite of denials by Washington and Islamabad. Under Pakistan's constitution, FATA are supposed to be autonomous and free of any troops, Pakistani or foreign.
Now, as the Afghan war turns increasingly against the U.S. and its allies, Gates wants U.S. Special Forces to "train Pakistani soldiers in counter-insurgency warfare" and join them in combat against pro-Taliban tribesmen -- provided, says Gates, Islamabad "invites" them.
Increasingly isolated, unpopular, and ever more dependent on U.S. support, President Pervez Musharraf may have no choice but eventually to accept an offer he cannot refuse.
Besides an act of political-military desperation, sending U.S. combat troops into Pakistan's wild FATA tribal zones is politically reckless and militarily foolish. They soon would be dragged ever deeper into Pakistan.
U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan already are over stretched and barely able to defend their own vulnerable supply lines. Incursions into Pakistan will pit U.S. -- and perhaps Canadian -- forces against the same warlike Pashtun tribesmen they cannot defeat in Afghanistan.
Secretary Gates' claim that Pakistan needs counter-insurgency training by U.S. Special Forces is preposterous. This writer repeatedly has been in combat in Kashmir and on the Siachen Glacier with Pakistani regulars and special forces. As a former soldier and veteran war correspondent, I can attest that Pakistan's 619,000-man armed forces, though poorly equipped due to U.S. embargoes, are among the world's toughest, most capable and best trained.
Pakistan's soldiers hardly need counter-insurgency training from a nation that suffered the humiliation of Vietnam and has failed to defeat guerrillas in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Nor do NATO troops in Afghanistan from Canada, the Netherlands or Britain, whom Secretary Gates recently ignorantly dismissed as lacking training in irregular warfare.
The Bush administration should think deeply before committing U.S. forces to a third conflict, this time against a powerful nation of 165 million seething with unrest, violence, and anti-Americanism.
Pakistan's army, which so far has been "rented" by billions in payments from Washington to fight the Taliban and its allies, is showing increased reluctance to wage war on its own people. The entry of U.S. troops into Pakistan could trigger a violent reaction from Pakistan's military.
This may include attacks on vital bases and convoys supplying U.S. forces and NATO in Afghanistan. Nationalist elements in the armed forces are complaining bitterly of becoming "sepoys", as the British Raj termed its native troops, in Washington's fight against violent anti-western groups. Pakistani Pashtun, who are prominent in the military and intelligence services, can be counted on to oppose any U.S. action against their fellow Pashtuns in FATA.
Gates' proposal conjures unwelcome memories of "mission creep" from Vietnam, where the U.S. diluted its forces and spread the war by moving into Communist "safe haven" Cambodia.
That operation was a strategic failure and led to the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge.
The idea of entering a third conflict when U.S. military forces are stretched to the breaking point and the Treasury running on money borrowed from China and Japan is sheer folly.
Once U.S. forces enter Pakistan, there will be no easy exit. The war-loving Pashtun will never stop fighting, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Given Washington's growing entente with India, Pakistan's military will very likely view U.S. forces operating in their nation as foes, not friends.
Osama bin Laden has repeatedly stated his hope that the U.S. will get sucked into a ruinous, debilitating conflict in Pakistan.
Secretary Gates may be taking the first step.