By TARA McKELVEY
SWAT VALLEY, PAKISTAN — The U.S. Army officer was standing in a field surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains as Pakistani refugees lifted sacks of potatoes from a Chinook helicopter on a brisk October afternoon. He was leading a group of soldiers on a humanitarian mission to help people who had been trapped in flood-ravaged villages, and I asked him if this was the first time he had been in Pakistan.
We stood together on the grassy tarmac, listening to the whir of the nearby helicopters, and he looked thoughtful. He nodded his head, but he said the word “No” — emphatically. After a moment, I got it: He had been to Pakistan, and he was teasing me with his yes / no response to my question.
He came to Islamabad for the first time in December 2001, he told me, during a period of time when the United States was invading Afghanistan. The officer and about 1,100 other U.S. troops were stationed in Pakistan during the early phase of the Afghan war, according to Gen. Tommy Franks in his book American Soldier, and many of the soldiers were part of U.S. Special Operations who crossed over the border into Afghanistan and fought in battles. After the initial phase of the war, a small group of special operators stayed in Pakistan and began training local forces to fight against the Pakistani Taliban and other militants in this country.
The Army officer was joking with his “yes / no” answer about whether or not he had been to Pakistan, but it captures the contradictory message that the U.S. government sends out about U.S. Special Operations. In the case of special operations, however, it is not a joke. The lives of U.S. and Pakistani soldiers and officers are at stake, as well as questions of national sovereignty and U.S. counter-terrorism policy, and all of these issues are being played out on Pakistani soil.