“The U.S. government has offered its deepest condolences for the loss of life, from the White House and from Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta.” – Tommy Vietor, National Security Council
In the aftermath of the Nov. 26 NATO attack on two border posts that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the question being asked is whether the assault was a “fog of war” incident or a calculated hit aimed at torpedoing peace talks in Afghanistan? Given that the incident has plunged relations between Washington and Islamabad to a new low at a critical juncture in the 10-year war, the answer is vitally important.
According to NATO, U.S. and Afghan troops came under fire from the Pakistani side of the border and retaliated in self-defense. American officials have suggested that the Taliban engineered the incident in order to poison U.S.-Pakistani relations. But there are some facts suggesting that the encounter may have been more than a “friendly fire” encounter brought on by a clever foe, an ill-defined border, and the normal chaos of the battlefield.
Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Samiullah Rahmani denies they were even in the area—and the insurgent group is never shy about taking credit for military engagements (of course, if deception was involved that is what the Taliban would say). However, this particular region is one that the Pakistani army has occupied for several years and is considered fairly “cleansed” of insurgents. The incident was not the case of a drone attack or bombing gone awry, a common enough event. For all the talk of “precision weapons” and “surgical strikes,” drones have inflicted hundreds of civilian deaths and 500 lb bombs have very little in common with operating rooms. Instead, the NATO instruments were Apache attack helicopters and, according to Associated Press, an A-130 gunship. In short, the assault was led by live pilots presumingly indentifying targets to their superiors.
Those targets were two border forts, architecture that has never been associated with the Taliban. It is true the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is porous and not always clearly defined, but the Afghan insurgents don’t build concrete posts. A “fort” is duck soup for a drone or a fighter-bomber, which is why the Taliban favor caves and hidden bunkers. Naturally enough, both sides disagree on what happened. The Americans say they took fire from the Pakistani border, engaged in a three-hour running fight, and called in the choppers at the end of the battle.
But, according to the Pakistanis, there was no fire from their side of the border, and helicopters started the battle, which went on for a little less than two hours. Pakistan also says there were two Apache attacks. The first struck outpost Volcano, and when the fort’s nearby companion, outpost Boulder, fired on the helicopters, it also came under assault. Pakistan claims that its military contacted NATO to warn them they were attacking Pakistani troops, but the firing continued. The helicopters finally withdrew, only to reappear and renew the attack when the Pakistanis tried to reinforce the besieged forts.
Might it have been a matter of bad intelligence? According to the Pakistanis, Islamabad has been careful to identify its posts to NATO in order to avoid incidents exactly like this. Pakistan Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem said, “it is not possible” that the “NATO forces did not know of the location of the Pakistani posts.” Pakistan Gen. Ashram Nader called the attack a “deliberate act of aggression.”
Could it have been “deliberate”? Mistakes happen in war, but the timing of this engagement is deeply suspicious. It comes at a delicate moment, when some 50 countries were preparing to gather in Bonn, Germany for talks aimed at a settling the Afghan War. Central to that meeting is Pakistan, the only country in the region with extensive contacts among the various insurgent groups. If the U.S. plans to really withdraw troops by 2014, it will need close cooperation with Pakistan. “This could be a watershed in Pakistan’s relations with the U.S.,” Islamabad’s high commissioner to Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, told The Guardian. “It could wreck the time table for the American troop withdrawal.”
Pakistan has now withdrawn from the Bonn talks, and relations between Washington and Islamabad are as bad as they have ever been. The Pakistanis have shut down two major land routes into Afghanistan, routes over which some 50 percent of supplies for the war move. Islamabad has also demanded that the CIA close down its drone base at Shamsi in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province. Who would benefit from all this fallout? It is no secret that many in the U.S. military are unhappy about the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban, in particular the organization’s most lethal ally, the Haqqani Group. There is an unspoken but generally acknowledged split between the Defense Department and the State Department, with the former wanting to pound the insurgents before sitting down to talk, while the latter is not sure that tactic will work. Could someone on the uniformed side of the division have decided to derail, or at least damage, the Bonn meeting?
It is also no secret that not everyone in Afghanistan wants peace, particularly if it involves a settlement with the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, made up of mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, want nothing to do with the Pashtun-based Taliban that is mainly grouped in the south and east, and in the tribal regions of Pakistan. The Afghan Army is mostly Tajik, who not only make up the bulk of the soldiers, but 70 percent of the command staff. President Hamid Karzi is a Pashtun, but he is largely window dressing in the Northern Alliance-dominated Kabul government.
There are broader regional issues at stake as well. It was no surprise that China immediately came to Pakistan’s defense, with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechu expressing “deep shock and strong concern” over the incident. China is not happy about the NATO deployment in Afghanistan and less so about the possibility of permanent U.S. bases in that country. At a Nov. 2 meeting in Istanbul, China, along with Pakistan, Iran and Russia, opposed a long-term American deployment in the area.
Iran is worried about the threat of U.S. military power on its border, Islamabad is concerned that prolonging the war will further destabilize Pakistan, and Beijing and Moscow are suspicious that the Americans have their sights set on Central Asia gas and oil resources. Both Russia and China rely on Central Asia hydrocarbons, the former for export to Europe, and the latter to run its burgeoning industries. China is also anxious about the Obama administration’s recent strategic shift toward Asia. The U.S. has openly intervened in disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea, and recently signed an agreement to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia. Washington has also tightened its ties with Indonesia and warmed up to Myanmar. To China, all this looks like a campaign to surround Beijing with U.S. allies and to keep its finger on the Chinese energy jugular vein.
Some 80 percent of China’s oil moves through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. A key ingredient in any formula to offset Beijing’s growing power and influence in Asia is the role of India. New Delhi has traditionally been neutral in foreign policy, but, starting with the Bush administration, it has grown increasingly close to Washington. China and India have a prickly relationship dating back to the 1962 border war between the two countries and China’s support for India’s traditional enemy, Pakistan. China claims on part of India’s border area have not improved matters.
India would also like a Taliban-free government in Kabul, and anything that discomforts Islamabad is just fine with New Delhi. There are elements in the American military and diplomatic community that would like to see Washington dump its alliance with Pakistan and pull India into a closer relationship. A fair number of Indians feel the same way.
So far, the White House has refused to apologize, instead leaking a story that showing any softness vis-à-vis Pakistan during a U.S. election year is impossible. In the end, the border fight may turn out to be an accident, although we are unlikely to know that for certain. Military investigations are not known for accuracy, and much of what happened will remain classified. But with all these crosscurrents coming together in the night skies over Pakistan, maybe somebody saw an opportunity and took it.
In a sense, it is irrelevant whether the attack was deliberate or dumb: the consequences are going to be with us for a long time, and the ripples are likely to spread from a rocky hillside in Pakistan to the far edges of the Indian Ocean and beyond.