Let’s look at some facts. Twenty-four Pakistani troops have been killed and 13 wounded after two posts, Volcano and Golden, were attacked by Nato (read: US) attack helicopters and, by some reports, at least one AC-130, a heavily-armed gunship variant of the C-130 transport aircraft. The sole user of this platform is the United States Air Force.
The attack came at around 0221 hours when short of a high alert, it is safe to assume, most soldiers, except the sentries and gunners, would be asleep.
Initial US-Nato inquiries, as reported by the western press, say a joint US-Afghan patrol came under mortar and machine gun fire by Taliban insurgents. When the patrol returned fire the insurgents seemed to withdraw towards the border. Later, while searching for them “the US commander spotted what he thought was a militant encampment, with heavy weapons mounted on tripods”. He called in air support and that’s when this tragedy began to unfold.
The inquiries also say the attack seems like an attempt by the Taliban to create confusion and provoke a fire exchange between US-Afghan and Pakistani troops.
At the minimum, these accounts coming out in the western media, show that (a) the Pakistani posts did not think there was any hostile activity in the area (the posts’ area of responsibility) which is why most soldiers were resting; (b) there was no firing from the posts; (c) the posts were unprepared for any attack with equipment not held by the Taliban.
In which case, there is a big question mark on the US-Afghan account that one of their patrols came under mortar and machine gun fire from the Taliban. We have no reports of any casualties on the US-Afghan side and because the two posts were located on a ridge (vantage ground) about 300 meters from the border, mortar shells and machine gun fire would have alerted the posts to some hostile activity. There’s no indication that any such alert was issued.
There’s a time lag between the patrol coming under fire (supposedly) and the attack on the posts, probably two hours by some accounts. It is a matter of record that, precisely to avoid any such incident, the two sides know the coordinates of border posts. Anyone familiar with such operations would testify to the fact that two such posts with perhaps an infantry company or company-minus strength, could not be unknown to sector commanders on the other side.
This is corroborated by the account that the US commander(s) spotted an encampment with heavy weapons mounted on tripods. What insurgent force would have an encampment and present that as a static target to be taken out by a superior force after it has presumably attacked a patrol and extricated?
These are initial accounts and much more needs to be known before one can be sure of what happened. But at this stage we can agree on some basic facts: no one fired on US-Afghan forces from these posts; the posts were operating without any threat perception from any force other than the Pakistani Taliban; the operational environment was deemed normal because this area has been cleared of TTP terrorists; the posts were not on high alert; they were not backing any force that might have opened fire on US-Afghan troops; the attack was unprovoked.
The Pakistani response has been to stop the Nato supplies and also ask the US to vacate the Shamsi airbase. What next?
First, let me reiterate my position: if a state does not establish its red lines earlier in the game and allows them to be tested, its response, later in the game would see it climb higher on the escalatory ladder, a situation that should normally be avoided, especially where asymmetries are involved.
But now the US forces have directly attacked and killed Pakistani soldiers. This is not a business-as-usual situation. There is no such thing as friendly fire. Incoming fire is never friendly.
So what is Pakistan going to do? The United Arab Emirates has already swung into action on the Shamsi airbase deadline. On that mystery I have already written in this space. The UAE would ask Pakistan to extend the deadline and hope the issue would be resolved. Lurking beneath its request would be the fact that it subsidises Pakistan’s oil and would be backed in this by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the servants of the Kaaba who are most closely allied with the US. The government should tell them politely that we cannot grant them this ‘request’. They need us as much, if not more, than we do them. If they insist, they may be told to lump it.
The base must be vacated. Period.
And the supply line? It should not be opened until the US accepts that its force attacked Pakistani troops deliberately, apologises, and agrees to pay heavy compensation to both the government of Pakistan as well as the families of those killed. After that, Pakistan may agree to allow only those supplies to pass through its territory that are required for Afghanistan’s development and are requested by Kabul. The three sides could agree to a list of items that must be checked at the port of entry. [NB: this does not happen now.]
No lethal supplies, equipment or spares that can contribute to US-Nato-Isaf war effort should be allowed through Pakistan. And, Pakistan must ask the US to pay heavy fees for transporting equipment that forms part of the list of items agreed upon by Pakistan and Kabul.
Pakistan did not record the unilateral US aggression on May 2. It should have been recorded with the office of the UN Secretary-General; at the UNSC (despite the likely US veto); and presented for voting in the UNGA. I said at the time that this abdication of what needs to be done will cost Pakistan dearly. I wish I were wrong. But life is cruel, as are inter-state relations. If Pakistan does not do what is required even now, it will have to move even higher on the escalatory ladder next time round. That is always more problematic for the weaker side.
Meanwhile, posts must be given surface-to-air missiles and officers authorised that in case of this kind of aggression, they must respond with force. In this incident, we would like to know why the posts were not given air support if the attack continued, as some accounts say, for more than an hour. It would be helpful to see some khaki heads roll at the higher levels if an inquiry reveals incompetence at those levels.
The US has pulled the cover off this partnership charade. Pakistan cannot continue with it even if it wanted to. Islamabad needs to review all aspects of US-Pakistan relations. While there is no need for Pakistan to be hostile, the onus of repairing relations is on the US, not Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2011.