Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Firefight in Pakistan

In the “interesting developments” file, NATO forces from Afghanistan operating inside Pakistan killed thirteen members of the Pakistan Frontier Corps, including a major, and wounded about a dozen more.

The fatalities were not the result of a stray mortar round or a Hellfire missile fired more on the basis of hope rather than solid intelligence.

A nightlong series of USAF airstrike carried out by two F15s and a B1 bomber supported by a surveillance drone plastered the Pakistani battlefield during a firefight between US and Afghan forces and Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

That’s not quite precision firepower.

To me, the incident looks less like an accident than a message—that NATO operations inside Pakistan on behalf of the Afghan government take precedence over Pakistani concerns over sovereignty and even lives.

It may also be a signal that the United States has abandoned the hope of coordinated operations with the Pakistani army under Musharraf against the Taliban, and shifted to a risky strategy of unilateral incursions instead.

Pakistan’s The News reported a detail that neatly illustrates the nasty political fallout we can expect from this operation:

Almost seven hours after the attack, two Pakistan Army choppers were sent to the troubled tribal region to bring the bodies of the soldiers and injured to Peshawar. However, the choppers flew to troubled spot after waiting for hours at Ghalanai, the regional headquarters of the Mohmand Agency, to let the situation become normal and allow the US planes to return to their bases in Afghanistan.

Seven hours. That’s a long time to keep an ally from evacuating his dead and wounded from a battlefield.

Nevertheless, the US military got a sympathetic hearing from AP:

Whoever was to blame, the U.S. airstrikes that may have killed friendly fighters in Pakistan have inflamed relations between the countries and could undermine the struggle to stem violence along the Afghan border.

Teasing through Pakistani news reports, it appears that there was more to the incident than the usual fog o’ war/hot pursuit/bang bang angle the AP is pushing.

Prior to the confirmed reports of Pakistani casualties, Dawn carried this item:

Tension mounted along the Pakistan-Afghan border after Nato-backed Afghan National Army entered the Pakistani area in Mohmand agency on Tuesday.

The Afghan troops wanted to set up a checkpoint in Speena Soka and Sargai Gandove area.

ISPR director-general Maj-Gen Athar Abbas said the dispute between the two sides over the Afghan move was resolved through negotiations.

“They were setting up the post opposite the Pakistani post on the hilltop of Gora Payo, but were not allowed to do so,” he said. Sources said that Nato and Afghan troops clashed with Taliban militants near the Upper Mohmand region.

As background, the Afghan/Pakistan border is a British imperial artifact, the Durand Line, which is disputed by both sides and the NATO/Afghan forces perhaps thought they were within their rights to set up a checkpoint.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that Afghan forces would try to set up a checkpoint and establish unilateral control over a piece of real estate that Pakistan, our ostensible GWOT ally—would consider its own turf, apparently with the knowledge and support of NATO.

There’s no love lost between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the issue of border disputes and, if NATO let Afghan troops go into an area controlled by Pakistan to try and set up a checkpoint, it was a rather inflammatory move.

While the Pakistanis told “the Afghans” not to set up their checkpoint, there was more going on than a negotiation. The dispute apparently occurred within the context of a running battle inside Pakistani territory between NATO forces and the Taliban militants they had pursued across the border that went on all day, climaxing with some pretty big airstrikes.

Judging by The News’ later and more circumstantial account, the whole episode looks very little like a “hot pursuit”, which is currently the only acknowledged justification for NATO operations inside Pakistan without prior Pakistani approval, and more like a planned incursion:

Around 80 US and Afghan soldiers earlier on Tuesday had moved towards Speena Sooka (White Peak) in the contested Sheikh Baba area, where Pakistan and Afghanistan for the past several years had wanted to set up a security check-post.

Both the neighbouring counties have been claiming the ownership of this strategically-important mountainous area, which on various occasions in the past resulted in violent clashes between the troops of the two countries.

However, the US troops backed by gunship helicopters and unmanned drones on Tuesday set up a military post on the disputed land and reportedly fired shots at the Pakistani security personnel when they offered resistance.

US military officials have reportedly complained that militants often use the same mountainous spot to infiltrate into Afghanistan to attack the allied forces.

The sources said the presence of the US forces in the volatile area provoked both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and consequently they attacked them.

The Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani militants affiliated with Baitullah Mehsud-led Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) reportedly sandwiched the US troops when they respectively attacked them from both sides of the border.

The US troops reportedly asked for air support from their military airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan.

The sources, while quoting senior US military officials, said two US Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle planes dropped 4,500-pound precision-guided bombs on the Pakistani territory, about a half-mile inside the border, about 12 miles south of Asadabad, the provincial headquarters of the bordering Kunar province.

Kunar, by the way, is the site of a newly established NATO base just a few kilometers from the Pakistan border that is central to the strategy of taking the battle to the Taliban’s heretofore safe havens in Pakistan’s frontier territories.

The incident looks like a pre-planned interdiction operation, one that involved establishing some kind of armed presence at a crucial chokepoint inside territory claimed and controlled by Pakistan (I’m guessing they planned to leapfrog in front of some Taliban fleeing toward their Pakistani haven and give them that Aha! moment), and calling in air support if and when things got too hairy, which apparently they did.

The way the thing blew up into a rather major clusterf*ck entailing the killing and wounding of a couple dozen soldiers of a friendly power on their own soil seems to provide a lesson in why cross-border operations need to be conducted cooperatively, instead of unilaterally.

But that doesn’t look like a conclusion that the US is prepared to accept.

The Pakistanis are undoubtedly furious and appalled at the extent of the US airstrikes, which apparently went on all night, seemed to go far beyond the immediate needs of force protection, and killed or injured a goodly number of friendlies in addition to Taliban fighters:

The Pakistani villages that came under attack included Suran, Bahadur Kalley, Guloona and Speena Sooka. Also, an FC post at Gora Paro was attacked where around 50 soldiers were deputed.

According to sources, besides the FC personnel and villagers, several militants were also killed in the US air strikes that continued till Wednesday morning.

The News pointed out the diplomatic fallout:

Speaking here at the National Assembly on a point of order by Engr Amir Muqam, the prime minister said: “We strongly condemn this attack,” adding that no one would be allowed to carry out such attacks on Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the American Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W Patterson was summoned to the Foreign Office on Wednesday and a protest over the incident was lodged. Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir conveyed the resentment of the government to the ambassador, said Foreign Office officials.

The foreign secretary told Patterson that the attack was unprovoked and a gross violation of international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. “The senseless use of airpower against a Pakistani border post by the coalition forces is totally unacceptable,” he said, adding that it (the attack) constituted a blatant and willful negation of the huge sacrifices that Pakistan had made in its endeavour to combat terrorism.

And, in a development that should be closely noted, even if the injury to tender Pakistani sensibilities is disregarded, unleashing the American colossus to brush aside the meddling Pakistani army and mete out condign punishment to the Taliban inside Pakistan may not turn out to be the trouble-free panacea that American military planners have been fantasizing about:

Maulvi Omar, TTP spokesman...claimed that their fighters had captured eight soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA).

Zabeehullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, also called this correspondent from an undisclosed location and claimed they had shot down a US chopper at Sarkano area in Kunar.

He also claimed that the Taliban had killed 20 US paratroopers when they parachuted in Kunar on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday.

Mujahid said 11 Taliban were killed and seven others were injured in the clash with the US troops on the Pak-Afghan border.

In the aftermath of yesterday’s incident, the Frontier Corps has been characterized as a “paramilitary force” with the implication that they are a bunch of undisciplined and perhaps disloyal dingbats who might even have joined in the battle on the Taliban side and pretty much deserved what they got.

The Frontier Corps is, ironically, something of a US creation and last year there was an effort to depict it in the noble tradition of the “Sunni Awakening” paramilitaries doing the anti-al Qaeda dirty work in Iraq.

The Times of India reported:

The United States has set up a program to train and equip a Pakistani paramilitary force recruited from tribal areas to try to counter Islamist militants, the Pentagon said on Monday.

Washington would supply equipment like helmets and flak vests to the tribal force, known as the Frontier Corps, but would not provide weapons or ammunition, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters. The plan also calls for the involvement of US Army trainers. He said the United States government believed that the tribal force was best-suited to fight militants who are believed to be behind a surge in violence in Pakistan's lawless mountainous regions bordering on Afghanistan.

"They are locally recruited and have local knowledge, language skills and most of all credibility with the people who live in those areas," he said. Asked about concerns that tribal fighters may not be reliable allies and may have ties to militants, Morrell said: "I don't think we would be proceeding with a plan of this nature, of this cost, unless we had some degree of confidence that it would be fruitful." He said that the corps was a legitimate part of Pakistan's security forces and the Pakistani government fully supported the plan.

The Pentagon came up with a non-apology concerning the deaths of eleven members of our erstwhile Frontier Corps allies.

Interestingly, it came via the same Geoff Morrell who had touted the advantages of the Frontier Corps last November.

He delivered a sterner message today. And it’s shouldn’t be surprising. Once the nature and extent of the US operation inside Pakistan is known, it’s hard to shrug off the prolonged and extensive bombing of Pakistani territory as an unfortunate accident.

The U.S. and Pakistan have "a vitally important relationship in an extremely dangerous part of the world," said [Pentagon spokesman] Morrell. "It is incumbent upon both of us not to let an incident like this or any other interfere with that fundamental shared goal of making sure the FATA (Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas) is not a refuge for terrorists who may be plotting attacks against the Pakistani government, the United States government, or any of our allies."

Actually, I think the fundamental goal of Pakistan is not having its citizens blown to pieces by American munitions, especially while it as attempting to broker a peace settlement with said citizens.

So Morrell’s implication that what’s important here is giving NATO forces a free hand to chase terrorists, even if it involves rather sizable collateral damage in terms of Pakistani lives, is not going to be appreciated over there.

And I also think it means that the United States has given up on its previous strategy—a Taliban-crushing pincer movement of NATO forces to the west and Musharraf-commanded Pakistani forces to the east.

With the civilian government anxious to reach an accommodation with the border tribes, it looks like the NATO alliance believes that open season against the Taliban inside Pakistan—despite what the Pakistan government wants and is trying to accomplish in its truce negotiations with border militants—is a military necessity to forestall the spring offensive the Taliban is expected to unleash against Karzai’s vulnerable government in Kabul.

An important indication of how important these operations are to the United States—and how far it is willing to go in affronting the Pakistani government—can be seen by the deployment by the ultimate weapon in Bush administration rhetoric: the threat of an al Qaeda attack on the United States.

The AP article concludes:

As recently as Monday, Mullen said that planning for the next attack against America is going on among insurgents in the border region.

"I'm not saying it's guaranteed it will happen, or that it is imminent," said Mullen, who has visited Pakistan three times since February. "We know that planning is taking place. ... That is a threat to us that must be dealt with."

This is a rather dishonest gambit, since the people we are chasing and killing in West Pakistan are largely Taliban threatening the Afghan government, rather than al Qaeda types plotting terrorist attacks against the United States.

But this invocation of the security of the American homeland and the value of American lives means that Pakistan is being put on notice that Pakistani sovereignty will be violated and Pakistani lives will be sacrificed with greater impunity in the months to come in pursuit of our strategic objectives in South Asia.

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