Just as, Pakistan was recovering from vestiges of Memogate as the scandal involving former Pakistani Ambassador to US Hussain Haqqani and the memo he is reported to have passed on to Mike Mullen has come to be called, another storm in US Pakistan relations has created a crisis of serious proportions. Claims of fratricide by NATO fighters and attack helicopters in a assault on two Pakistani Army border posts in Mohmand Agency resulting in death of 24 troops expectedly created a furore in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
The incident couldn’t have come at a worse time as the two countries were picking up threads from past acrimony resulting from a series of incidents to include the Raymond Davis case and Osama Bin Laden’s assassination in Abbottabad. While the enquiry of incident has been ordered by a hugely embarrassed NATO command, Pakistan has officially closed the supply lines to Kabul and asked the US to leave Shamsi air base in the country. In a related incident on 30 September 2010, strikes by NATO helicopters had resulted in the death of two Pakistani soldiers leading to closure of the border for 11 days. With far more fatalities involved the reaction this time will expectedly be much stronger and impact may last longer. Thus, the relations between US/NATO and Pakistan could be moving towards a new low.
Meanwhile, recalling details of the attack, which occurred at the Salala checkpoint, about 2 kms plus from the Afghan border, at around 02:00 AM, 26 November, a statement by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) noted that NATO helicopters and fighter aircraft struck at the two posts set 300 metres apart on a mountain top resulting in the death of 25 soldiers and 12 injured as per count on 27 November. Even as NATO enquiry is on preliminary reports suggest an operational failure on the part of the command in Afghanistan which needs thorough review.
Reactions from Pakistan have been on expected lines. Army Chief General Kiyani was quoted by ISPR to have, “strongly condemned NATO / ISAF’s blatant and unacceptable act resulting in loss of precious lives of Pakistani soldiers.” US Ambassador Cameron Munter was summoned to Pakistan Foreign Office to lodge a strong protest. A Press statement issued by Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “The president, prime minister and the government of Pakistan strongly condemn the attacks which were totally unacceptable, constituted a grave infringement of Pakistan’s sovereignty, were violative of international law and a serious transgression of the oft conveyed red lines and could have serious repercussions on Pakistan-US/NATO/ISAF cooperation.”
There were frantic calls from Washington and Kabul by Secretary Clinton, Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen John Allen NATO commander to their counter parts in Pakistan. NATO commander in Afghanistan sending his condolences reassured of thorough investigations, “This incident has my highest personal attention and my commitment to thoroughly investigate it to determine the facts,” said General John Allen, commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). However it may be some time for things to cool off and may demand transparent investigation and apportioning of blame by NATO where due.
NATO would have to provide a credible explanation for the air attack and in case operational failures are identified as indeed there would be those guilty may have to be dealt with as per existing laws. An assurance to the effect which has not been forthcoming may be required and even US President Barack Obama may have to step in due course after full facts of the case are established.
Given that there is operational coordination between NATO and Pakistan armed forces and the post was 2 kms inside Pakistan territory, rational reasons for the mishap may seem implausible except for a hot pursuit of terrorists from Afghanistan which has been undertaken in the past. Yet the gravity of violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty would have led to a go ahead at a sufficiently high level for the strikes to be launched particularly using air and attack helicopters. Indeed a very senior NATO commander in Kabul may have to face the flak unless incontrovertible proof otherwise is produced.
The incident also highlights necessity for sensitising operational commanders of full implications of such decisions particularly using air power in the territory of another country. These have not just tactical but strategic fall out at the bilateral and global level and particularly where the relationship is at such a sensitive stage as that between the US and Pakistan. Indeed greater discretion was warranted. This also underlines the need for higher level of coordination that is necessary between NATO and Pakistani forces to avoid the occurrence of such incidents which would only add to the continuing strains including Memogate scandal and now the large scale deaths.
While there has been low trust between the US/NATO in the past, this was restricted to intelligence sharing and covert operations, that this is also in the operational field is now evident and measures to restore the same with greater transparency may be necessary. NATO commanders must accept that it may be better let a few terrorists get away rather than raising the heat on an ally only to convert him into an adversary as has been happening with Pakistan of late.
For the svelte yet committed Ms Sherry Rehman who is the new Pakistani envoy to Washington, the first assignment may be one of the toughest she has undertaken in her long political career where she has earned a reputation for resoluteness. Hopefully she will be able to manage the many contradictions in what may be one of the most fractious inter state relations.