Firefight on the Pakistani Border


On Saturday, NATO and Afghan forces claim they came under fire from Pakistan.  Two hours of retaliatory airstrikes left two dozen Pakistani troops dead.  According to Pakistan, the attacking NATO forces ignored their pleas to halt the airstrikes, and did not make any attempt to communicate with them before launching the attacks.

The Pakistani government claims it did not initiate the confrontation, although Afghan officials back up NATO’s claims.  A report at the Voice of America tells us NATO and U.S. diplomats are behaving as if Pakistan has the better end of the argument:

NATO and U.S. officials responded quickly to try to minimize the diplomatic repercussions of the attack.  NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Sunday promised a full investigation into the “tragic, unintended” deaths.   

Rasmussen told Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani that the deaths of the Pakistani troops were “unacceptable and deplorable.”  

Earlier Sunday, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the air raid was not acceptable and demonstrated a complete disregard for human life.  Clinton responded by saying she was deeply saddened, and she promised to work with Pakistan on the issue.

The angry Pakistani government shut down all NATO supply lines to Afghanistan running through their country, and wants U.S. forces to clear out of an air base in Baluchistan.  A report by the McClatchy news service says the NATO forces involved in the incident were primarily American.  The Pakistani military wants to see some casualties to justify the intensity of the airstrikes directed against its border outposts:

Major Gen. Athar Abbas said the military outpost on a mountain top at Salala in the Mohmand part of Pakistan near the Afghan border was well marked on maps that both Pakistan and NATO have and that the U.S. air assault lasted for more than an hour.

“I cannot rule out the possibility that this was a deliberate attack by ISAF,” Abbas said, referring to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force by its acronym. “If ISAF was receiving fire, then they must tell us what their losses were.”

The already strained relationship between Washington and the regime it supports with several billion dollars per year of foreign aid has frayed a bit further, especially since the current government in Islamabad is politically weak, and could use this incident to curry favor with its decidedly anti-American populace.  Time reports that the very same Major General Abbas appeared at a service for the dead Pakistani soldiers, and had some choice words for his NATO “allies”:

On Sunday, Pakistani soldiers received the coffins of the victims from army helicopters and prayed over them. The coffins were draped with the green and white Pakistani flag.

The dead included an army major and another senior officer. The chief of the Pakistani army and regional political leaders attended the funerals.

“The attack was unprovoked and indiscriminate,” said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. “There was no reason for it. Map references of all our border posts have been passed to NATO a number of times.”

There were several protests around Pakistan, including in Karachi, where about 500 Islamists rallied outside the U.S. Consulate.

It should be noted that Taliban insurgents kill Pakistani troops all the time, without provoking much official hand-wringing in Islamabad.

Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor reports that Afghans have had their fill of Taliban forces lobbing attacks from “safe” havens on Pakistani soil:

In Afghanistan, where accidental deaths caused by NATO air strikes remain a highly contentious issue, one might expect to find support or at least sympathy for Pakistan. Yet Afghan relations with Pakistan have fallen to such lows that a number of Afghans now rejoice upon hearing news of Pakistani deaths.

“This is not enough. We want America and NATO to go to Pakistan and kill all those people who help the terrorists,” says Mohammadullah, a resident of Afghanistan’s Kunar province directly across the border from Pakistan. Like many Afghans he has only one name. “We want NATO to just say sorry, like they always tell us without investigating anything,” adds Mr. Mohammadullah, with a trace of irony.

Shooting across the Pakistani border is an old game played by the Taliban.  McClatchy News explains how it’s played:

In the past, much confusion has been caused by insurgents firing into Afghanistan from positions close to Pakistani check points, making it appear to NATO and Afghan troops that they are coming under attack from the Pakistani positions.

In an incident last year, Pakistani soldiers shot into the air to warn NATO helicopters that they had crossed the border, but that was mistaken by the aircraft crew for incoming fire.

ISAF commanders, however, suspect that Pakistani forces look the other way when their territory is being used by Afghan insurgents, or even actively collude in the attacks. Pakistan angrily denies the charge.

The Pakistani military has repeatedly proclaimed that it has cleared Mohmand of Taliban and other extremists, only to have to launch new operations. Local anti-Taliban militias operate in Mohmand to try to keep the extremists away.

Earlier this month, Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, who commands troops along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, told reporters at the Pentagon that there are on average three to four cross border attacks a week. Most are blamed on the Taliban-allied Haqqani network, which U.S. officials have claimed is allowed to operate in Pakistan.

(Emphasis mine.)  Despite all the public diplomatic reassurances to Islamabad, this weekend’s NATO airstrike might have been a signal to the Pakistani government that the rules of the game are changing.  If those Pakistani outposts were aiding Taliban gunners, warning them in advance would have been tantamount to holding the door for escaping Taliban forces.  All of this takes place in the shadow of the bin Laden raid, which occurred inside a Pakistani military city, a fact which is diplomatically uncomfortable for all concerned.

On the other hand, cutting ties with the Pakistan government would turn their border with Afghanistan into a one-sided shooting gallery, unless NATO is prepared to go to war with Pakistan, or at least ignore their border to fight insurgents and dare them to do something about it. 

Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) stressed the importance of maintaining our ties with Pakistan, while demanding a bit more bang for our foreign policy bucks – and not the kind of “bang” that comes from Taliban shells whizzing out of Pakistani territory.  Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) appeared on the same show, and said he thinks we can solve the problem by bugging out of Afghanistan:

As difficult as it is to find our way through this diplomatic morass, between the incompetence and maybe corruption in Afghanistan and the complicity in parts of Pakistan, our soldiers are caught right in the middle of this – at a time when they are trying to bring peace to the region.  I think it is an argument, from my point of view, of moving us toward the day when our American soldiers come home.

Which brings us back to the larger strategic question of Pakistan, the Taliban, and Afghanistan.  The whole reason we went into Afghanistan in the first place – and remember, this was the operation loudly and lovingly embraced by Democrats as “the good war” while they were howling about the “bad war” in Iraq – was to strike at the state sponsors of the 9/11 attacks, and deny al-Qaeda a safe haven for further operations. 

We experienced a stunning level of early tactical success, soaring over the quagmire that devoured the Russians in the 80s, and toppling the supposedly unbeatable Taliban.  Unfortunately, on the strategic level, the Taliban never considered themselves “defeated.”  They scooted off to safe havens in the Pakistani tribal area, and ten years later, they’re poised to scuttle out of their roach holes and resume control. 

The Taliban has been remarkably pure in its savagery, and completely focused on eventual victory.  While Western diplomats walk on eggshells in Islamabad, and labor unsuccessfully to slather lipstick on the corrupt pig of an Afghan government, the Taliban kidnaps children and turns them into bombs, while establishing a relationship with the Pakistani military that cost a tiny fraction of America’s billions in foreign aid. 

The big-picture lesson is shaping up to be that global terror does have safe havens provided by “legitimate” Middle East governments.  We disrupted their operations on a massive scale in Afghanistan, and made a strategic gambit that Iraq could be the first of several soon-to-be-nuclear cesspools we could drain.  The way things are going, the end of American operations in Afghanistan will leave the net effect of our presence there as a 15- to 20-year interregnum for the barbarians who cheerfully hosted Osama bin Laden… and when they get home, they’ll have a fine working relationship with an already-nuclear cesspool that also cheerfully hosted Osama bin Laden. 

That’s why we must maintain some diplomatic influence in Islamabad, even as we use our remaining days on the Afghan border to aggressively bomb the crap out of every “safe haven” we find on Pakistani soil.  That’s also why it might not be the worst thing in the world if the creepy Pakistani government uses us as the devil in a campaign puppet show.  We paid a lot of money for that lousy government, and we won’t get a refund if they’re toppled and replaced by something even more hostile to our security needs.  Hopefully whoever we were shooting at on Saturday were important terrorist assets, regardless of what costume they were wearing.