US and Pakistan: On an Accelerating Downward Slide?


12/16/2011 By Richard Weitz

The Pakistani Embassy yesterday offered a briefing of the Pakistani military’s version of the November 26 incident in which U.S. attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship attacked two Pakistani border outposts near Afghanistan in the Mohmand tribal area shortly after midnight , killing 24 soldiers and wounding 13 others.

The briefers accused NATO of having conducted an unprovoked, deliberate attack on Pakistani troops shortly after midnight and then ignoring two hours of frantic Pakistani communications to cease the assault. They claim that the senior NATO officer at the joint border coordination center Nawa, on the Afghan side of the border. even apologized during the attack for relaying the wrong coordinates to the Pakistanis of the intended target of the NATO air strike, which prevented the Pakistanis from warning the base it was about to be attacked.

According to the briefing, the second base came under air assault after it began fighting to defend the first. They claim that the NATO attack continued for one hour after the alliance had notified the Pakistani military that it had ceased. The briefers conclude that the continued assault on Pakistani troops even after NATO had acknowledged it was firing on the Pakistani border posts proved that attack was deliberate.

The US-Pakistani downturn in relations which have unfolded in 2011 could accelerate in 2012. Image Credit: Bigstock

This briefing was largely a restatement of what Pakistani military leaders have been saying since the incident occurred. For example, Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, the director general of military operations, related the same account to reporters in Pakistan a few days after the attack.

Afghan and NATO sources have unofficially claimed that they were being fired on from the area of the border outposts and had called in air support, but the Pakistanis deny that any insurgents were active in their area before the NATO assault began. The NATO sources also claim the Pakistanis informed them that no Pakistani soldiers were in the area of the impending air strike.

The NATO and Pakistani sources also differ regarding whether NATO can employ force in the border area without Pakistani approval. Alliance representatives insist that Pakistan does not have authority to veto strikes along the frontier. NATO tries to inform the Pakistanis of an impending attack so that Pakistan can warn any troops in the area. They seek such “clearance” at one of the border centers where both sides station officers and exchange information about military operations near the Afghan-Pakistan boundary to avoid friendly fire incidents. Even so, past cases of have occurred when it seemed that the Pakistanis passed on these warnings to the Taliban, who then took evasive action. These episodes may have led NATO to withhold information about some operations.

The Pakistanis have refused to participate in NATO’s investigation of the November 26 incident, claiming that earlier joint investigations had failed to punish those responsible or avoid subsequent cross-border incidents. Their embassy briefing was clearly an effort to publicize Islamabad’s views of the affair before NATO releases its own findings within a week. The NATO report will include data from overhead imagery and from the aircraft that attacked the Pakistani outposts.

The November 26 incident is but the latest crisis to befall the Afghan-Pakistan border region during the last decade. A similar incident in September 2010 killed two Pakistani troops, led to the closure of one of NATO’s supply routes through Pakistan for 10 days. In June 2008, U.S. aircraft killed 11 Pakistani Frontier Corps members at a border checkpoint. NATO forces claimed they were attacking Afghan Taliban guerrillas who were fleeing into Pakistan through the crossing. Pakistani officials called that bombing incident “completely unprovoked and cowardly.” Yet, the number of Pakistanis killed on November 26 made that incident the most serious case of “friendly fire” along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the decade-long NATO war in Afghanistan.

Following the U.S. military intervention in the fall of 2001, the Afghan Taliban, along with some members of al-Qaeda and other foreign Islamist fighters, established sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan, specifically in the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA). This region has long enjoyed substantial autonomy from Pakistan’s central government based in Islamabad, but lacks equal political representation and social development. In addition to infiltrating men and material from the FATA into Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgents often fire on coalition forces from the Pakistani side of the border. The Pakistani military, claiming limited capabilities, has failed to occupy the entire FATA and eliminate the militants there. The tribal armies, called lashkars, as well as the paramilitary Frontier Corps have failed to keep out Taliban infiltrators.

The insurgents sometimes position themselves near these Pakistani military posts when attacking Afghan and coalition targets, presumably because they believe coalition forces would prove reluctant to attack them at the risk of hitting Pakistani soldiers. Afghan and NATO forces constantly complain about the Pakistani forces seeming reluctance to suppress this activity. Local Afghans believe the military is actually sheltering the Taliban guerrillas and aiding their operations.  It is possible that the Taliban orchestrated the November 26 incident between Pakistan and NATO by attacking coalition forces and then hoping NATO would mistakenly attack Pakistani government forces in return.

Whatever the causes, the November 26 incident was certainly a case of bad timing.

The previous day, General John R. Allen, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, had met Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at Pakistan’s general military headquarters in Rawalpindi. According to a statement by the Pakistani military, they had discussed “measures concerning coordination, communication and procedures” between the Pakistan Army, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan Army, “aimed at enhancing border control on both sides.”

The month before, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had led a senior U.S. government delegation to Pakistan in an attempt to improve ties. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and David H. Petraeus, the director of the CIA, accompanied Clinton. Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has since told Clinton that the NATO attack negated all whatever recent progress the two sides had achieved in improving the strained ties between the countries

The year 2011 has truly been an annus horribilis for Pakistani-U.S. relations, beginning in January with the Raymond Davis affair.

Davis was a CIA contractor working under the cover of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad who shot two Pakistani men in January, claiming they meant to rob him. The men appear to have been working for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who was monitoring Davis’ efforts to track terrorists in Pakistan. Past CIA information enabled the CIA to attribute terrorists attacks against India to Pakistani-based groups, embarrassing Pakistan’s government. The affair highlighted the complex relationship between the two intelligence agencies, whose members distrust one another even as they work together in joint operations. Many Pakistanis complain the incident exposed problems inherent in the large CIA presence in their country.

The White House then ordered the May 2 Special Forces attack on bin Laden’s compound at Abbottabad in central Pakistan without seeking Islamabad’s permission or notifying Pakistani authorities in advance. U.S. officials rightly feared that some Pakistani officials would warn bin Laden of any impending attack since, given that he had been hiding for years in a compound near a military base in central Pakistan, there was reasonable suspicion that bin Laden was enjoying some official protection. But the strike embarrassed the Pakistani military.

On September 14, members of the Haqqani network attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Evidence of the Haqqani network’s responsibility for this attack, and its support by the Pakistani intelligence, outraged U.S. officials. In his September 22 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Mike Mullen, who was about to retire as Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, bluntly denounced the continuing links between the ISI and the Haqqani terrorist network. He claimed that the ISI had directed and supported Haqqani attacks on U.S. targets in Afghanistan.

The September 2010 incident also came at an unfortunate time in Pakistani-U.S. relations, which had been on the upswing in previous months. The death of the two Pakistani soldiers had negated whatever goodwill the United States had achieved by spending more than $100 million on Pakistani flood relief as well as enacting the new Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, committing the United States to provide $1.5 billion in annual economic assistance to Pakistan for the next five years. The aid package is designed to show that Washington will undertake a long-term nonmilitary commitment to Pakistan extending beyond the war on terror.

Relations between Pakistan and the United States could very easily deteriorate further in 2012.

Coalition and Afghan forces appear to have made considerable progress against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan but not in the eastern provinces, where they can exploit their sanctuaries in Pakistan. NATO figures indicate that there has been a 21 per cent increase in enemy attack in eastern Afghanistan.  As a result, next year will probably see the coalition shift its focus eastward, which will increase the fighting in the border regions, Some of the fighting will naturally spill over across the Afghan-Pakistan frontier.

Growing budgetary stringency and war wariness in the United States and other Western countries make them less tolerant about incurring heavy human and financial costs in Afghanistan with little result due to perceived Pakistani duplicity. These pressures also make it difficult to generate major economic and military aid for Pakistan.

Since the November 26 incident, Pakistan has moved to reinforce its forces along the border and relaxed their rules of engagement, allowing them to fire at a greater range of targets more easily. We now have a situation where both NATO coalition forces and Pakistani troops can engage targets across the border without seeking advanced permission in cases of self-defense, creating new escalatory dynamics in any direct confrontation.

Conversely, Afghan-Pakistan border tensions are likely to recur—and worsen—as NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

Western governments will increase their pressure on Pakistani authorities to prevent the Taliban from exploiting the vacuum, while the drone strikes and other measures against the Haqqani network could escalate, despite Pakistani objections. Pakistani leaders will continue to hedge against the Taliban’s regaining control of some if not all their border regions.

They will seek at a minimum to avoid antagonizing it—and at least certain Pakistani national security managers will invariably be tempted to revise old ties and use the Afghan Taliban as an instrument for asserting Pakistani influence in this important neighboring country while also countering Indian influence there.

Dr. Weitz discussed the deteriorating situation on Aljazeera as well.