By Robert Baer
As Wall Street collapsed with a bang, almost no one noticed that we're on the brink of war with Pakistan. And, unfortunately, that's not too much of an exaggeration. On Tuesday, the Pakistan's military ordered its forces along the Afghan border to repulse all future American military incursions into Pakistan. The story has been subsequently downplayed, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, flew to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, to try to ease tensions. But the fact remains that American forces have and are violating Pakistani sovereignty.
You have to wonder whether the Bush administration understands what it is getting into. In case anyone has forgotten, Pakistan has a hundred plus nuclear weapons. It's a country on the edge of civil war. Its political leadership is bitterly divided. In other words, it's the perfect recipe for a catastrophe.
All of which begs the question, is it worth the ghost hunt we've been on since September 11? There has not been a credible sighting of Osama bin Laden since he escaped from Tora Bora in October 2001. As for al-Qaeda, there are few signs it's even still alive, other than a dispersed leadership taking refuge with the Taliban. Al-Qaeda couldn't even manage to post a statement on the Internet marking September 11, let alone set off a bomb.
U.S. forces have been entering Pakistan for the last six years. But it was always very quietly, usually no more than a hundred yards in, and usually to meet a friendly tribal chieftain. Pakistan knew about these crossings, but it turned a blind eye because it was never splashed across the front page of the country's newspapers. This has all changed in the last month, as the Administration stepped up Predator missile attacks. And then, after the New York Times ran an article that U.S. forces were officially given the go-ahead to enter Pakistan without prior Pakistani permission, Pakistan had no choice but to react.
On another level the Bush Administration's decision to step up attacks in Pakistan is fatally reckless, because the cross-border operations' chances of capturing or killing al Qaeda's leadership are slim. American intelligence isn't good enough for precision raids like this. Pakistan's tribal regions are a black hole that even Pakistani operatives can't enter and come back alive. Overhead surveillance and intercepts do little good in tracking down people in a backward, rural part of the world like this.
On top of it, is al-Qaeda worth the candle? Yes, some deadender in New York or London could blow himself up in the subway and leave behind a video claiming the attack in the name of al-Qaeda. But our going into Pakistan, risking a full-fledged war with a nuclear power, isn't going to stop him.
Finally, there is Pakistan itself, a country that truly is on the edge of civil war. Should we be adding to the force of chaos? By indiscriminately bombing the tribal areas along the Afghan border, we in effect are going to war with Pakistan's ethnic Pashtuns. They make up 15% of Pakistan's 167 million people. They are well armed and among the most fierce and xenophobic people in the world. It is not beyond their military capabilities to cross the Indus and take Islamabad.
Before it is too late, someone needs to sit the President down and give him the bad news that Pakistan is a bridge too far in the "war on terror."
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.