‘The assumption that it (Pakistan) has no choice but to obey America may turn out to be a dire strategic error’
—Simon Tisdall in The Guardian, November 27,2011
‘In Pakistan the attack has given a weak – but broadly pro US – government the chance to bolster its nationalist credentials and reassure its public that it is no stooge of Washington. Ministers will shout and scream and express their outrage. Then, having placated the rabble rousing opposition leaders, quieted the Islamists and burnished their nationalist colors they will accept an apology and go back to taking American dollars. So too the military – And the dead soldiers having served their purpose will be forgotten, mourned only by their families.’
—Rob Crilly in The Daily Telegraph (Daily Times – Nov 30, 2011)
In the early hours of the first day of the Islamic New Year US/NATO forces struck a clearly demarcated Pakistani Check Post in the Mohmand Agency of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal areas. Two officers of the Pakistan Army and 22 soldiers were killed with another 13 seriously injured.
The strikes, which Pakistani officials said had involved both helicopters and fighter jets, took place at two military posts in Salala, a village in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region near the border with Kunarand Nangarhar provinces in Afghanistan. At least 40 soldiers were deployed at the posts, which according to Pakistani officials were established to repulse attacks by Afghan militants and the Taliban. Pakistani military officials said NATO aircraft had penetrated roughly 2.4 kilometers into Pakistan to make the strikes. Briefing the media the Director General Military operations (DGM0) of the Pakistan Army gave details of the attack confirming that it was deliberate and without provocation – the Pentagon has disputed this claim. The DGMO also indicated that this was the third such incursion.
A NATO spokesman, Brigadier General Jacobson, offered details suggesting that Allied and Afghan troops operating near the border came under fire from unknown enemies and summoned coalition warplanes for help. —”In the early night hours of this morning (Saturday, local time), a force consisting of Afghan forces and coalition forces, in the eastern border area where the Durand Line [the colonial boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan] is not always 100-per cent clear, got involved in a firefight,” Jacobson said, according to a transcript of his statements on NATO TV. “Air force was called in into this activity and we have to look into this situation of what actually happened on the ground.” Speaking to Pakistan TV Jacobsen refused to tender an apology but did regret the attack and also refused to give a deadline as to when an investigation could be concluded implying that this could take time. Jacobsen also implied that the interruption of NATO logistics would not pose a problem.
In his comments Jacobsen has tried to indicate the contours of a possible eventual NATO explanation after an investigation that NATO is conducting on its own – ‘fire from unknown enemies, – response to calls for close air support from Afghan National Security Forces, – a firefight, – Durand Line not clear in the area, – investigation at different tiers takes time etc”. Pakistan has, however, clearly stated that the attack was without any provocation from the Pakistan side and that it was delivered after violation of Pakistani airspace from Afghanistan and that it was on an easily identified and accepted check post on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. NATO / US have not indicated why an operation close to the border at night was being carried out without coordination with the Pakistani check post in the vicinity and what sort of activity warranted such drastic and prolonged action against an ally. The attacks continued for over two hours in spite of communications from Pakistan informing ISAF that the attacks were on Pakistani posts. This pattern tends to confirm the view that the attack was deliberate and possibly pre-planned unless the NATO investigation turns up something new.
Commenting on the incident in The Guardian of November 27 Simon Tisdall wrote – “but Washington should treat it with deadly seriousness all the same, for this latest outrage is another fateful signpost on the road to a potential security and geostrategic disaster that may ultimately make Afghanistan look like a sideshow – since 2001, when the Bush administration bluntly told Islamabad it must take sides, be either “for us or against us” in the newly declared “war on terror”, Pakistan has struggled under a plethora of imperious American demands, demarches and impositions that are at once politically indefensible and contrary to the perceived national interest – the last year has been another humiliating one at the hands of the country’s principal ally – Pakistanis have looked on impotently as US Special Forces flouted its sovereignty and killed Osama bin Laden under the army’s nose; as the US stepped up drone terror attacks in Pakistani territory despite repeated protests; and as people-pleasing US senators and Republican presidential candidates have taken to picking on Pakistan and its aid bill in uninformed foreign policy rants – Hillary Clinton and the Pentagon top brass have responded to Saturday’s killing with the usual expressions of regret and of determination to “investigate”, without formally admitting responsibility. Their pronouncements are worthless, transparently so – the belief that weak, impoverished, divided Pakistan has no alternative but to slavishly obey its master’s voice could turn out to be one of the seminal strategic miscalculations of the 21st century”.
Pakistan’s response to the attack on its troops came after the Army Chief had consulted and briefed senior commanders and the nations’ highest decision making body – the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) – had met and considered response options. The statement issued by the DCC on the NATO/ISAF attack on border posts, 26 November 2011 was clear and unambiguous:
“The DCC noted that strong protests had been lodged with the United States and at NATO Headquarters in Brussels conveying in the strongest possible terms Pakistan’s condemnation of these attacks which constituted breach of sovereignty, were in violation in of international law and had gravely dented the fundamental basis of Pakistan’s cooperation with NATO/ISAF against militancy and terror. NATO/ISAF attacks were also violation of their mandate which was confined to Afghanistan. Pakistan had clearly conveyed to US/NATO/ISAF its red lines which constituted an integral element of Pakistan’s cooperation that was based on a partnership approach. The attack on Pakistan Army border posts is totally unacceptable and warrants an effective national response.
In accordance with the resolution of the Joint Session of the Parliament of 14 May 2011, the DCC decided to close with immediate effect the NATO/ISAF logistics supply lines The DCC also decided to ask the US to vacate the Shamsi Airbase within 15 days.
The DCC decided that the Government will revisit and undertake a complete review of all programs, activities and cooperative arrangements with US/NATO/ISAF, including diplomatic, political, and military and intelligence. The Prime Minister will take the Parliament into confidence on the whole range of measures regarding matters relating to Pakistan’s future cooperation with US/NATO/ISAF, in the near future.”
Pakistanis cannot help but recall earlier incidents – the attacks in September 2010, the Raymond Davis fiasco, the Osama raid, recent media articles targeting the Pakistan military and ISI and of course the most recent event now being called ‘memo gate’. In his op-ed piece, ‘A new Pakistan policy: Containment’, carried by ‘International Herald Tribune’, on 17 October 2011, Bruce Riedel opined that, “America needs a new policy for dealing with Pakistan. First, we must recognize that the two countries’ strategic interests are in conflict, not in harmony, and will remain that way as long as Pakistan’s army controls the strategic policies… the generals who run Pakistan think time is on their side – that NATO is doomed to give up in Afghanistan….We must contain the Pakistan Army’s ambition until civilian rule returns and Pakistanis set a new direction for their foreign policy”. Wayne Madsen, reported that “Pakistan is next on the target list of nations that will soon be feeling the military muscle of the United States…unlike other Muslim nations that have been subjected to the US military intervention, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya, Pakistan’s ultimate prize for the West is its nuclear weapons arsenal…” Another media piece dubbed Pakistan the ‘ally from hell’. After this incident Reidel is reported to have commented that the base closure would have no impact and Drone attacks would continue as long as US had the use of Pakistan’s airspace.
Actually Pakistan (including its military) fully understands the reality of the current environment and is resetting their policies – a fact that is not being acknowledged but is actually quite evident. Pakistan’s response has been mature and restrained. Besides the DCC response the Chief of Army Staff has now delegated response to the lowest levels. This means the man on the spot will decide what action to take if he comes under fire without reference to higher levels in the chain of command and there is no doubt that capabilities to take on air attacks will be enhanced. The move up the escalatory ladder will now depend on the aggressor and future engagements will not be one sided.
Much will depend on how the US and NATO decide to proceed in this matter. There is outrage and anger in Pakistan as Pakistanis watched heart rending scenes of grief at the funerals of those killed. Pakistanis are used to burying their dead and the Pakistan military is paying a heavy price but to be killed by those you consider allies and that too in your own territory is not acceptable. Close air support, the supposed reason for the attack, is provided to extricate ground troops from an undesirable situation or to take out a high value target identified by ground troops or other means or to push forward an attack as part of a coordinated plan. You do not call for air support against small arms fire or flares assuming that there was a fire fight at all. Ground operations in the vicinity of allied or friendly forces are always coordinated in advance. Air attacks are always on clearly identified targets. Friendly fire can kill own troops in the fog of ongoing battles but not in an isolated case where the rugged terrain actually makes check posts stand out and act as reference points – especially check posts established to control cross border movement. An investigation may lead to the answers but what has been done cannot be undone.
Several questions have now surfaced and each in its own way tries to explain this attack that, without a doubt, is being seen as a land mark game changing event. An immediate escalatory response by Pakistan could have led to very serious consequences. Pakistan is fully aware of its capabilities and limitations in what is clearly an asymmetric environment. This has raised the question that the attack was deliberate and intended to highlight the helplessness of the Pakistan military against US incursions so as to bring it under criticism from Pakistanis — part of the ‘get Pakistan military and ISI’ series. Raymond Davis, OBL, and memo-gate are all slotted into the same category. There is also confusion on the status of the base – Shamsi Base – (and the UAE role in it) that the US has been asked to vacate – but facts are emerging even as the US prepares to leave the base.
The next scenario being tossed around is based on the fact that the attack was from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province – the scene of a recent transition of security responsibility to Afghan Security Forces. The idea apparently was to demonstrate US support capability to panicky Afghan National Security Forces. These forces are said to have asked for close support during some kind of operation in the area and panicked when a flare was allegedly fired by the Pakistanis to see what was going on. Also to indicate to the Pakistanis the type of post withdrawal operations that could be conducted against them if they were to try and exploit the situation. As collateral it helps secure the US-Afghan Strategic Agreement and the Pentagon’s future plans of a prolonged stay in Afghanistan that may be the real goal and part of US strategy against Russia and China and part of the ‘new Silk Road’ scenario.
A variant of this scenario has the Taliban masterminding the event by engaging the Afghan Security Forces in the vicinity of the Pakistani post thereby triggering their reaction and US/NATO response. The Taliban have had a long standing desire to see the Afghan Government Forces fighting with the Pakistan military. Yet another variant is the desire of the Northern Alliance backed Afghan Government to see the US attacking Pakistan whom they have repeatedly identified as the real enemy. The Taliban are seen by some as riddled with all sorts of intelligence operatives and therefore amenable to outside influences at a price – in fact the Pakistan Taliban are seen by some as a creation to take the war into Pakistan’s FATA and destabilize the border region for just such type of attacks.
These debates and speculations will continue. The usual pattern is that the event reaches conclusion as per the plan of the stronger side and is followed by regret and concern by the perpetrator and much chest thumping and threats by the other side. The next phase is the speculation and analysis phase – this is where we are right now, and finally comes the post event investigation and action phase to bring some sort of conclusion. This particular event is being seen as far too serious and damaging to smoothly move through these transitions unless there is genuine resolve to do this—the Pakistani response has made this clear. Pakistan may also restrict the use of its air space only to non-lethal movement. On the US side the response so far is that the action to stop logistics through Pakistan will have no impact on operations and that the drone attacks will continue in spite of the base closure. The US Ambassador’s message of regret has been positive but President Obama’s refusal to regret or apologize has been puzzling. Russia has signaled that it would reconsider the US use of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) as part of its response to a US Missile Shield in Europe. This highlights the fact that US strategy depends on logistics outside its control – a fatal strategic flaw. Reliance on the NDN could shift the center of gravity of Taliban operations to the north and west with all its implications.
As the DCC statement has clearly stated Pakistan has to review its response options. Pakistan does not actually have to declare the chosen option, and it has to review the entire spectrum of its relationship with the US. Pakistan has also stated that it will not participate in the Bonn Conference though there are indications that a lower level participation may be there. Strategic talks already interrupted cannot deliver unless this event is out of the way – nor will track two interactions help at this stage. The question of US aid and other transactional matters will have to be separated and each others policies clearly stated. Perhaps a more balanced relationship will finally emerge but the message for Pakistan from this incident is clear – ALL its institutions must come together to develop internal strength and nothing should distract Pakistan from this goal. The US failure in Afghanistan has led to an ethnic divide there that will play out once US/ISAF have left and the Taliban reassert for a political role. The Northern Alliance backed by India and the US will not be able to avert a civil war unless there is political reconciliation because the Taliban represent the Pashtuns. Pakistan’s role is critical and the drivers behind its strategic options need to be understood. Strategic depth’ and ‘India centric’ are no longer the buzz words that they may have been once. The real reason for the rise of extremism has been understood the hard way and the focus now is on the economy, bilateral relations and internal strength. The US urgently needs an unbiased, objective and acceptable interlocutor for meaningful interaction with Pakistan.
(Spearhead Analyses are a collaborative effort and not attributable to a single individual).
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