Monday, November 28, 2011

NATO Attack on Pak Check Post - Ramifications

On 26th November 2011 (around 2.00 am local time), helicopters/aircraft belonging to NATO/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) carried out an attack, alleged to be unprovoked by Pakistan, on a military border outpost at Baizai area of Mohmand tribal region a lawless border area which abuts Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province, killing about 24 to 28 soldiers including a major and a captain. Fifteen more personnel were wounded and the death toll could rise as condition of some of the injured was reported to be serious. The attack prompted Islamabad to launch strong protest with the United States and close its frontier for supplies to allied forces in Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities responded to the attack by stopping all container trucks and tankers carrying supplies for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The attack threatened to further strain the already tense US-Pak relations.

According to the spokesman for the NATO-led ISAF in Kabul the coalition was aware of "an incident" near the border and was gathering information on it. Security forces blocked all entry points to Mohmand tribal agency after the incident and began checking all vehicles, TV news channels reported. Several crossings on the Afghanistan frontier, including Landikotal and Takhtbai, were closed and over 150 NATO supply vehicles sent back to Peshawar.

Pakistan rejected the regret expressed by NATO and warned that the action would have grave consequences. The regret expressed by NATO over the killing of the Pakistani soldiers is "not enough", chief military spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas said. "The NATO strike can have grave consequences," he said. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Sunday said he had written to Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to express regret over the "tragic unintended incident".

Apart from closing all NATO supply routes, Pakistan asked the US to vacate Shamsi airbase within 15 days. The base is believed to be used by Central Investigation Agency for operating drones. 

While Pakistan has alleged that the air strike was unprovoked, there are reports suggesting that Afghan troops operating near the Pakistani border came under fire and in response called in NATO air strikes. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said it was unclear who attacked the Afghan troops before dawn Saturday, but that the soldiers were fired upon from the direction of the Pakistani border posts that were hit in the strikes.

The border area where the soldiers were operating contains a mix of Pakistani forces and Islamist militants.

But there are forces working against a total rupture in the relationship. Pakistan continues to rely on billions of dollars in American military and civilian aid, and the U.S. needs Islamabad's help to push Afghan insurgents to engage in peace talks.

Tensions are likely to exacerbate if militants unleash attacks against hundreds of trucks carrying supplies to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan that were backed up at Pakistani border crossings after Islamabad closed the frontier.

Suspected militants had destroyed around 150 trucks a year ago after Pakistan closed one of its Afghan border crossings to NATO supplies for about 10 days in retaliation for a U.S. helicopter attack that accidentally killed two Pakistani soldiers.

The situation could become worse this time because Pakistan has closed both its crossings. Nearly 300 trucks carrying coalition supplies are now stranded at Torkham in the northwest Khyber tribal area and Chaman in southwestern Baluchistan province. A prolonged closure of Pakistan's two Afghan border crossings to NATO supplies could cause serious problems for the coalition. Recent reports suggest that the closure of the crossings is permanent. The U.S., which is the largest member of the NATO force in Afghanistan, ships more than 30 per cent of its non-lethal supplies through Pakistan. The coalition has alternative routes through Central Asia into northern Afghanistan, but they are costlier and less efficient. According to the Telegraph, although the US is transporting more of its equipment, food and fuel through Central Asia in an attempt to reduce Pakistani leverage, the route through Karachi still accounts for 49% of supplies destined for the 140,000-strong foreign force.

The incident will have far-reaching ramifications not only on US-Pak relations, but also for the ISAF operations in Afghanistan and the US-led war on terror.

Firstly, ISAF will have to explore the possibilities of opening and maintaining alternate routes for transport of food, equipment and fuel for its forces stationed and operating in Afghanistan. Secondly, Pakistan’s action of closure of the border crossings will most likely be met with cut US military and non-military aid to Pakistan, something which it can ill-afford.

Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is highly suspect. The US Government and its lawmakers are highly skeptical of Pakistani intentions and its policy of hunting with the hounds and running with the hare. Western officials have alleged that Pakistan has played a "double-game" since 2001, by allying with the US but at the same time providing support to the Taliban and other Afghan insurgents. US officials suspected that the Pakistani ISI had conspired with the Haqqani network in the September 2011 attack on the US Embassy in Kabul. The relations between the two sides have nose-dived since then. This incident may give Pakistan a pretext to withdraw support to the US war on terror, particularly because of the unpopularity of the drone attacks inside Pakistan. And the US too may be looking for an excuse to carry out military strikes inside Pakistan because of Pakistan’s reluctance to take action against groups like the Haqqani network, which Pakistan considers to be a strategic asset.

The most important ramification of this incident is Pakistan’s call to vacate the Shamsi air base operated by the CIA.

First offered to Washington in the early days after 9/11 by the Musharraf regime when it simpered before the American threat that it will be bombed back to the Stone Age if it did not cooperate, Shamsi's US operations was a well-kept secret till February 2009 when Internet trawlers ferreted out Google earth photos showing drone aircraft at the base. News that the US was using Pakistani facilities to carry out its Predator campaign within Pakistani territory against Pakistani targets embarrassed Islamabad no end, sparking off a campaign to evict American assets. Pakistan, it must be noted managed to get US to vacate the Jacobabad airbase, the second of the air base operated by the US. Reports suggest that Pakistan has not been successful in getting the US to vacate the Shamsi base. How did the US manage to cling on to this base? The answer lay in the fact that the air base was not even under Pakistani control. Like with some other parts of the country like areas of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir ceded to China and parts of the Khyber Pakhtunwa given up to extremists, Islamabad earned itself the dubious reputation as a rentier state, it turned out that Shamsi Air Base had been leased out to some Gulf potentates.

During the Pakistan national assembly debate following the Abbottabad operation, Pakistan air chief Rao Qamar Suleman reportedly told lawmakers in camera than Shamsi has been under the control of the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan Air Force had no say in the matter. In fact, the Shamsi air strip was originally built for Arab sheikhs who flew into Pakistan to hunt for the houbara bustard, a rare bird some Arabs believe has aphrodisiac properties.

Now, the US-UAE arrangement in Shamsi rendered the Pakistani establishment impotent. 

In the event of closure of the Shamsi Air Base, the drone operations being carried out by CIA may be adversely affected. The US may have to shift these operations to a secure location in Afghanistan or elsewhere. If such a situation were to arise, then the US may probably adopt a no holds barred approach to taking on terrorists in Pakistan

In conclusion, Pakistan must realise that playing a dangerous double game as they have done so far in Afghanistan is fraught with serious risks wherein allied forces may carry out military strikes as highlighted  by this incident "accidentally". None, but Pakistan alone, will be responsible for such actions.


Anonymous said...

Pakistan got what it deserved. Pakistan has been indulging in this double game in Afghanistan for a long time. Taking advantage of the fact that the Af-Pak border is not properly demarcated, Pak has been pushing in militants into Afghanistan to fight the ISAF. Its luck ran out on 26/11/2011, (ironically, the same day when it infiltrated a ten-member fidayeen squad to attack Mumbai) when the ISAF aircraft pulverised its check post.

Australia in the Indian Ocean said...

On top of Pakistan's double game the US is probably playing a triple game. If Indian estimates about a year ago of 2,000 US case officers and their Pakistani agents is accurate there isn't much that the US wouldn't know about Pakistan's double games.

Expressions of US surprise often voiced by its Secretary of State about new lows in Pak's conduct are unconvincing.

For example the US probably knew arount 2007 where bin Laden was but the Bush family were too close to Saudi Arabia (and other reasons) to kill bin Laden during the Bush presidency.

The US probably tolerates Pak's double game because a collapsing Pak that also has nuclear weapons would present scenarios much much worse than the current unsatisfactory (putting it lightly) situation.


Kumar said...

Hi Pete

You may be partially right. But I am not too certain whether US would have refrained from launching operations against Laden during the Bush Administration had it known about Laden's whereabouts for the reasons cited by you. Getting Laden was non-negotiable and the Abbottabad operation proved this.