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Patrick Cockburn: The US strategy for Afghanistan won't work

Covert operations only succeed when they have strong local allies who want outside support

"Covert action is frequently a substitute for policy," was an aphorism first coined by the former director of the CIA Richard Helms. Its truth is exemplified by the decision of President Bush in July to secretly give orders that US special forces will in future carry out raids against ground targets inside Pakistan, without getting the approval of the Pakistani government.

Mr Bush's order is fraught with peril for the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. In one respect, it is a recognition at long last by Mr Bush that the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies could not stay in business without the backing of Pakistan. This is hardly surprising, since it was Pakistani military intelligence which largely created them in the first place.

It was always absurd for the White House and the Pentagon to pour praise on the former Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf as their greater ally against terrorism, despite the clearest evidence that it was the Pakistani army which has been keeping the Taliban going since 2001.

True to Helms's nostrum, Mr Bush has not adopted a new policy, but is resorting to covert operations, the political disadvantages of which are obvious, and military benefits dubious. A good example of this is the first of these operations undertaken under the new dispensation. On 3 September, two dozen US Navy Seals were helicoptered in to South Waziristan in Pakistan, where they attacked a compound, aided by an AC-130 gunship. When they retreated, they said they had killed many al-Qa'ida fighters, though a senior Pakistani official later said that the true casualty figures were four Taliban and al-Qa'ida "foot soldiers" and 16 civilians, including women and children.

It is a curious way to usher in democracy in Pakistan. Once Pakistan emerges from its preoccupation with the Ramadan fast, it will create nothing but anger among Pakistanis. It will alienate the Pakistani army, which has been humiliated and disregarded. Politically, it only makes sense in terms of American politics, where it will be seen as a sign that the administration is doing something in Afghanistan. It also diverts attention from embarrassing questions about why the Taliban is such a potent force seven years after it had supposedly been destroyed in 2001.

Use of covert forces to achieve political ends with limited means has always held a fatal attraction for political leaders. CIA officials have become used to being dumped with insoluble problems, with peremptory orders to "Get rid of Khomeini" or "Eliminate Saddam." Plots to do just that are the common theme of a thousand Hollywood movies, which revolve around the dispatch of elite forces into enemy territory, where they successfully dispatch some local demon.

In reality, covert warfare seldom works. Up-to-date intelligence is hard to come by. Take, for instance, the repeated claims by the US Air Force that it had killed Saddam Hussein during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This was meant to be based on up-to-the minute information, much of which turned out to be spurious. Of course Saddam had survived, though not the poor civilians who had the ill luck to live or work where the Iraqi leader was meant to be.

The media plays a particularly nasty role in all of this. Stories of the attempts to kill Saddam Hussein were given maximum publicity. Their total failure was hardly mentioned. The reaction of the Pentagon to the killing of large numbers of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Pakistan has traditionally been first to deny that it ever happened. The denial is based on the old public relations principle that "first you say something is no news and didn't happen. When it is proved some time late, that it did happen, you yawn and say it is old news."

For some reason, the Israelis have a reputation for being good at undercover operations. This is hardly difficult in Gaza, where the enemy is so puny and vulnerable. But while I was stationed in Jerusalem for this newspaper, Israeli intelligence was involved in a series of ludicrous fiascos. My favourite was when the chief Mossad agent in Syria turned out not to exist, though his Israeli handler happily pocketed several million dollars that the spy was supposedly receiving for his treachery. The handler concocted the agent's reports and one of these, falsely claiming that Syria was plotting a surprise military offensive, even managed to get the Israeli army mobilised.

Israel also provides a classic example of a covert operation that will produce limited gains if it is successful, and a diplomatic disaster if it does not. In September 1997, two Mossad agents carrying forged Canadian passports tried to assassinate Khaled Mashal, a Jordanian citizen, in the centre of the capital Amman. He was the head of the political bureau of Hamas in Jordan. The ingenious method of assassination was to inject a slow-acting poison into his ear as he entered his office. In the event, the would-be poisoner was captured after a chase through the streets of Amman. Four other agents took refuge in the Israeli embassy.

The mission had been given the go-ahead by the Israeli prime minister of the day, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had simply ignored the idea that it might go wrong. King Hussein was reduced to threatening to storm the Israeli embassy unless Israel handed over an antidote to the poison. Israel was forced to release Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the head of Hamas, and other Palestinian prisoners from jail.

Covert operations only really succeed when they have strong local allies who want outside support. There are two recent outstanding examples of this. In Afghanistan in 2001, US special forces reinforced the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and, most importantly, gave them forward air controllers who could call in air strikes. Two years later, US special forces played a similar role in northern Iraq, when they provided air support to Kurdish troops attacking Saddam's retreating army.

But if covert forces are acting alone, they are very vulnerable. What will happen to them in Pakistan if they get in a fire fight with regular Pakistani forces? What will they do if they are ambushed by local tribesmen allied to the Taliban? Usually, the first to flee in these circumstances are the local civil authorities and the civilian population, so the Taliban will be even more in control than they were before.

Helms's dictum was right. The Bush administration got itself into a no-win situation in Afghanistan. "The US attack on Iraq," writes the Pakistani expert Ahmed Rashid, in his newly-published Descent into Chaos, "was critical to convincing Musharraf that the United States was not serious about stabilising the region, and that it was safer for Pakistan to preserve its own national interest by clandestinely giving the Taliban refuge."

The covert action in Pakistan is merely an attempt to divert attention from the consequences of this bankrupt American policy.