Pakistan Army back in the saddle

With the attack on border posts and the allegations that followed, the U.S. has considerably undermined its own position and strengthened the Pakistani military establishment's rhetoric.

In one fell swoop, the United States has squandered whatever gains it had made on May 2 by way of forcing the Pakistani nation to question the main arbiter of its destiny — the military establishment — and the choices it has made.

The raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a breach of sovereignty the Pakistanis were able to live with but what happened in the wee hours of November 26 along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is not just difficult to stomach but has also allowed the Pakistan Army to reclaim the national narrative.

Some of the most die-hard critics of the Pakistan Army were out on the streets protesting against the U.S. That they were also demanding a welfare state instead of a security state was lost on the onlookers who have generally been willing to buy into any anti-U.S. rhetoric, preferring to blame the outside hand for much that ails Pakistan instead of reconciling to some of the nation's own flawed policies.

This time they had good reason. The U.S. had lived up to its reputation of being a brute force by entering Pakistani airspace and strafing two Pakistan Army outposts. Two parallel narratives are emerging and given that facts are invariably at a premium in this region — particularly in matters of security and strategy — not many here believe the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) assurance of a thorough investigation.

What is undeniable, and not even disputed by the coalition forces in Afghanistan, is that 24 Pakistan Army soldiers were killed and 13 injured in the ISAF strafing on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. The U.S., the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the ISAF were quick to regret the incident but no apology was forthcoming though there were enough indications in the Pakistani discourse that the least the coalition forces could do was apologise.

In the bruised and battered Pakistani mindscape, the writing on the wall was clear: Their lives were cheaper than western lives, particularly American. This further fuelled the anger among a people who have had their lives turned upside down by the American desire for retribution post 9/11, and what is seen as Washington's multiple ambitions in the region: military bases and a permanent presence — more than the usual diplomatic level — in Afghanistan to contain China and Iran, exploit the gas and mineral wealth in the region, and keep a watch on Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

As days passed by, positions hardened and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was quoted as telling the Senate's Standing Committee on Foreign Relations that an apology would not suffice. A day earlier, Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) Ishfaq Nadeem had described the attack as an “unprovoked act of blatant aggression” which was “not unintended.”

The Pakistani version goes thus: “After midnight on November 26, two or three helicopters appeared and started engaging ‘Volcano' post, smashing all communication systems. In response, the ‘Boulder' post engaged helicopters with anti-aircraft guns and all available weapons. The helicopter also attacked the post and communication was lost. By then all channels of coordination had been activated. We informed them about the attack and the helicopters were pulled back but they returned a while later and resumed firing that went on till 2.15 a.m.”

According to the DGMO, all Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) were violated by the ISAF and the NATO. As per the SOPs, both sides have to inform the other ahead of a military operation within 10 km of the border. In fact, the other side is then supposed to block possible escape routes that terrorists may use. But that night, none of these coordination mechanisms were activated by the two distrusting allies.

Pakistan maintains that the positions of the posts had been conveyed to the ISAF through map references. They could not be mistaken for terrorist sanctuaries because the other side had been provided all available information about the number of posts and their locations. The men at the posts were uniformed and the posts well-defined. Also, the Pakistan Army claims NATO was monitoring transmissions that night and knew they had hit ‘Volcano' checkpost.

The NATO account — unofficial though — is that the incident took place when close air support was sent in on request by ground forces — a combined group drawn from coalition forces and Afghan troops — to the Eastern Kunar area of Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan after they were fired upon from the Pakistani side.

Without going into details of what kind of operation was being undertaken in Eastern Kunar — which has seen considerable crossfire this summer due to cross-border incursions by Pakistani Taliban groups led by Maulana Fazlullah (Radio Mullah) — ISAF spokesman Carsten Jacobson said the troops were operating in a very rugged part of the country. “It is in a part of the country where the borderline is not 100-per-cent clear. The Durand Line does not show 100 per cent the border on the ground. The forces were operating in Afghanistan.”

It is the ISAF's contention that the coalition forces may have been lured into attacking Pakistani outposts in a calculated manoeuvre by terrorists who use the uncertainty of the border to their advantage. However, Pakistan has countered this argument with a demand for display of casualties suffered by the ISAF.

Also, the question why did the choppers come back after being pulled out on being told they were attacking Army posts, persists.

Pakistan also maintains that the area had been cleared of terrorists following a military operation in September in the Mohmand agency in the wake of repeated attacks on security posts by militants who move across the border with ease. In fact, the two posts that were pulverised had been set up only recently to prevent Fazlullah — who had unleashed a rein of terror in the picturesque Swat Valley before escaping to the Nuristan and Kunar areas of Afghanistan — from infiltrating and attacking Pakistani outposts and border villages.

Though, according to those who attended the DGMO briefing, Major-General Nadeem did not dwell on what possible objective(s) NATO/ISAF sought to achieve with this “deliberate attack,” the understanding across the board is that this was no mistake or accident, call it what you may. As the former Ambassador to the U.S., Tariq Fatemi, asked in one of the various television discussions on the issue, how can the Americans claim to have made a mistake when they have drone technology that, according to them, can kill terrorists with very few civilian deaths? “This is not the bullock cart age.”

Another apprehension is the possibility of this being an ISAF effort to test the waters on conducting hot pursuits inside Pakistan. Sceptical about the attack being a deliberate act, senior journalist Najam Sethi pointed out that “if this was a deliberate act, then our response was also deliberate. Our security establishment seemed to have prepared for such pressure tactics and therefore the swift response in closing NATO supply lines, asking the Americans to vacate Shamsi airbase…”

This, to him, does not augur well for either side as it means “both establishments are indulging in strategic war gaming.” This is not what allies do to each other and he is apprehensive that this game can slip out of either side's hands at any point.

However, the former Interior Secretary, Rustam Shah Mohmand, who hails from the very tribal agency of Mohmand where the attack took place, is of the view that the relationship will be back on track in a few weeks. “Both countries are dependent on each other.” While Pakistan needs the aid that the U.S. provides, Washington needs Islamabad to bring some semblance of normalcy to Afghanistan.

The inevitability of getting back together is probably why Pakistan's initial steps to articulate anger were developments that the U.S./NATO/ISAF can live with. Closure of supply lines to Afghanistan does not immediately impact the coalition forces as they had built alternate routes in anticipation of such a stand-off and the U.S., according to general understanding, had stopped using the Shamsi airbase for launching drone strikes sometime back.

Questions are being raised as to why the Air Force was not called in that night to counter the attack, but the DGMO indicated that this would have “escalated the scale of the incident.” Also, given the disparity between Pakistan's military prowess and the combined strength of the NATO forces, a political response was preferred — though the civilian leadership was informed about the incident only after daybreak.

However, that line appears to be changing with Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani suspending the “command of chain system” so that any soldier or officer in a particular situation can act without waiting for orders from the top.

This ‘strike-without-permission' green signal to the rank-and-file is likely to escalate tensions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and is a clear signal that the civilians will be out of the loop. Not that evidence was ever needed.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 7:12:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/pakistan-army-back-in-the-saddle/article2689765.ece

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