This Washington Post story does an excellent job of placing yesterday’s U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan within the context of what Barack Obama has been promising for 18 months. Military force against al-Qaeda senior leadership in the Pakistani tribal areas will occur unilaterally if-and-only-if the Pakistani government and military demonstrates intransigence. In October I wrote a piece about both the potential benefits and the enormous risks of such an approach.

But why not get into some others? Let’s go beyond just emphasizing the widely-agreed-upon nightmarish endgame of a destabilized nuclear state. Instead let’s look at what in this policy could get us there — or get us to other, similarly awful outcomes.

First, Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and a South Asia adviser to Obama, defended the policy to me in October like this:

“These are the guys who attacked us in Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania,” she said. “If that’s the target he’s going after, it’s his obligation. Nothing Obama has ever said indicates he’d be doing it without the Pakistanis knowing.”

I italicized the beginning of the conditional because it’s what, potentially, slips between cup and lip. How do you know who you’re targeting in the tribal areas? Precision missiles are only as precise as the targeting information that guides them. Now, something is up with targeting information in the tribal areas. I’m not guaranteeing this, nor am I ready to report anything, but it is a safe assumption that missile strikes (and the occasional raid) would not have increased in 2008 without an increase in human-intelligence reporting from the Pakistani side of the Afgh-Pak border. I am not vouching for the value of that information. And like I said, I am not ready to report anything on this. But remember that last year, George W. Bush loosened the restrictions on Special Operations Forces in Pakistan. Something to watch for as AfghaniPakistan policy takes shape is whether Obama reins them back in — or whether he’s being told that the resulting increase in information if that in fact exists is too valuable to give up.

Notice that that’s a slippery slope. These are supposed to be attacks against senior al-Qaeda leadership. Who counts as senior? I’m not making an argument, I’m just pointing out a consideration to watch for. 

Second, you have new people as Pakistani president, Army chief and intelligence chief. They are going to spend a lot of time figuring out where one’s power ends and another’s begins. They’re also under seige by a really vicious murderer named Beitullah Massoud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Suffice it to say that they’re not lacking for pressure. If it’s a choice between riots in the streets in Pakistan and a dead bin Laden or Zawahiri, I’d say that’s a worthwhile trade-off, but — again — your targeting information is rarely that good. Some of these decisions, if not all of them, are going to be made on a gamble, and Pakistan is caught in the shuffle. Husain Haqqani, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, is a real, true friend to the U.S., so it’s worth listening when he says:

"Pakistan hopes that Obama will be more patient while dealing with Pakistan," Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, said in an interview Wednesday with Pakistan’s Geo television network. "We will review all options if Obama does not adopt a positive policy towards us." He urged Obama to "hear us out." 

Review all options is not really what you want to hear from a key ally (or, if you prefer, frenemy). Perhaps it’s inevitable: our interests, it really should be said, are not as uniform against al-Qaeda as the Bush/Musharraf partnership stated in public. Pakistan is at greater danger of destabilization than the U.S. is in danger of another catastrophic terror attack emanating from the Pakistani tribal areas. Recognizing that has to be a key aspect of strategy.

And that leads to the broader point. The Obama administration hopes strikes like these send the message to Islamabad that more of this is on the way if the Pakistanis don’t get their shit together and hunt down al-Qaeda itself. If you were President Zardari, how would you react to that message? Would you believe that the U.S. really understood, or cared, about the pressures you face; and was actually willing to assist you in dealing with them? Or would you think you were getting an insulting series of ultimatums, purchased in people’s lives?