Other side of Salala

Published: December 4, 2011

The writer is a defence and political analyst who retired as an air-vice marshal from the air force

The process of annihilating the ‘Volcano’ and the ‘Boulder’ posts at Salala by Nato/US troops began on November 25. Just before the midnight hour, a formation of aircrafts — four high speed (fighters), three to four medium-level, slow-speed drones and three helicopters — appeared on Pakistani radars. They drifted slowly towards the east. Aircraft fly routinely on the Pakistan-Afghan border, some as close as only a kilometre away only from the border; almost always, the mission is to support anti-Taliban operations. Such a composition of an aerial force, however, is unusual and is categorised as ‘intense activity’. Intense activity gets reported right up the chain, as it was in this case. In parallel, the information, both in video link, as indeed in telephonic coordination, is shared with the Pakistan Army’s Air Defence Command Post. Both sides, the air force and the army, observed closely as this package drifted ever closer to the border.

It is usual, again, for Nato/US and Pakistan, to share information around a robust and well-tried- mechanism on all missions that take place in the vicinity of the border. This information invariably gets transmitted a day in advance and always before an operation gets underway. Aerial activity, at a distance less than three kilometres from the border, is always cleared with the other side. The border’s sanctity, in all such cases, is invariably respected. That night though, as the aircraft package drifted closer, both for its constitution and for its likely intent to cross the three kilometres threshold, the local US-Pakistan Tactical Monitoring Cell (TMC) was approached through the usual channels and an explanation sought on the developing aerial picture. The TMC confirmed an anti-Taliban ground operation in progress for which the air support was intended.

Two caveats are important: while US and Pakistan have such a manned coordination of information mechanism at the tactical level, there isn’t one between the air force and the army where information sharing and threat assessment are instituted concurrently as the situation evolves — the existing contacts remain at the leadership level and are activated mostly when a headquarters and, therefore, a commander, has reasonably assured information himself. It may be a sad reflection, but true, that most coordination for a tactical situation of the kind that Pakistan experiences today in its war against terror is kicked in as a consequence of television reports which are usually more pervasive and efficient. And two, no prior information had been shared with either the army or the air force about this night’s mission by Nato/US; unknown to either that both were in the dark and without notification.

Coordination between Nato/US and Pakistani forces also exists in the shape of Regional Command Tactical Centres created on the Afghan side, adjacent to, and along the border. That night, as reported in various versions of US media reports, a ground operation was indeed underway by the Nato/ANA forces against the Taliban, in the vicinity of the two Pakistani posts on the border; Pakistan was neither aware, nor informed of such an operation. Why, remains a hanging and a loaded question. As has been stated, this was an ANA led operation where Nato/US was in assistance. Was the ANA not bound by the coordination mechanisms in place? Or was ANA leadership in the operation used as a convenient subterfuge to avoid intimation as per agreements? Both issues will need to be answered at some stage.

Both posts were more mere encampments and had come into place, after September 2011, after the successful completion of anti-militant operations in Mohmand. These were intended to augment monitoring and control against increasing incidence of cross-border raids by factions of Taliban from the Afghan territories. These were posited on a ridge between the more regular ones in the north and the south; it was generally understood that in the course of many briefings that both sides mutually shared, the information and institution of these new posts was known to Nato/US. Was this a costly assumption? Or, did a more heinous intent override any rationality, including possessed information? The Nato/US tactical centre in Afghanistan across these posts also has a Pakistani presence. The Pakistani major was woken by the American duty official and was informed of two things: one, that the Nato/ANA patrol had met fire and were under attack; and two, he sought from the major, information on any additional Pakistani posts in the area. Unsure of the intent, the major dithered from sharing information unless exact coordinates of the area in question were provided to him. Seven minutes later, the same official returned to inform the major that post ‘Volcano’ had been hit.

Two issues emerge: who fired on the Nato/ANA ground patrol and how were they aware of ‘Volcano’? Reportedly, this entire area on either sides of the border is infested with Taliban. So, what is likely is that, indeed, there was an operation in the area unknown to the Pakistanis and that this patrol did come under some fire and was engaged, which pushed them to seek air support. The Pakistani posts are only 200-300 metres from the border, which makes it easily possible for the post to be engaged from within Afghanistan, especially, from the air and for someone on the other side to assume that a fire could have emanated from these posts. Possibilities such as these clouded perceptions and entangled the two sides into a deadly engagement? Or, was it really so, given that no prior intimation was made to the Pakistanis about this operation. On the radars where the aerial activity was being monitored, the Nato/US air package never closed in less than one kilometre from the border. It still gave them comfortable range to engage these posts. There will be questions asked, though, if the helicopters may have slipped below the radar horizon and closed onto the posts for a more venomous attack. Loss of communications on both posts meant a delay in building a tactical picture at all levels of command. As a consequence, other than a rag-tag resistance at the post, no other defensive support could be provided to those under attack.

Why remains the bigger question. Will the fog of war subsume all else that appears as an element of deadly omission and commission that men make when they are in active combat? Emotion makes man what he is, as indeed, the beast that he sometime becomes. Salala was a beastly act and a deadly consequence.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2011.

Reader Comments (26)

  • Dec 4, 2011 - 10:01PM

    Does not speak very well of our preparedness to defend a hot border.

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  • Nadeem
    Dec 4, 2011 - 10:40PM

    We are sad that our soldiers died yet again. The Army high command is clearly out of its depth now. Through the decades it has discovered that it is much easier to conquer Pakistan than it is to conquer Afghanistan or Kashmir. In order to keep the dollars and arms flowing the generals will go back to business-as-usual in a few days until it is time to again jump up and down like monkeys when the next policy fiasco hits them – and us (their subjects)

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  • LOK
    Dec 5, 2011 - 12:13AM

    What is the objective of writing this article sir?

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  • N
    Dec 5, 2011 - 12:32AM

    Our “enemies” think there is no difference between our military and its “strategic” assets. That is indeed a beastly omission.

    We were under attack for 4-5 hours. Not a single plane or artillery gun responded! The “fog” of war was so intense. Now you have to believe the ISPR. If you don’t, it could have deadly consequences.

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  • Aryabhat
    Dec 5, 2011 - 1:49AM

    I do not understand why the whole nation gets worked up for the death of 24 troops when it did not even stirred when 72 troops were killed by Taliban after OBL’s death.

    EVERY life is precious. Especially of soldiers as they die for others.

    However, protesting only for violation (by error) of America/Nato and not bothering when it is by Taliban (and intentional – no error in this case), Pakistan as a nation is sending a message to world and Taliban that it is ready ot be another Afghanistan of 1990 – a completely Taliban state.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Dec 5, 2011 - 2:47AM

    Sir,

    Not surprisingly you are defensing the incompetence and non-reaction of the PAF.

    We are not interesting in a technical discussions. We ARE interested in knowing why the PAF and its fancy airborne surveillance equipment paid for by my TAXES were sleeping.

    What are the orders given to these units? Not to engage? Then why have an Air Force?

    Why don’t we just all go to sleep and let NATO do as they please because the distance from the border is small?

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  • ahsan
    Dec 5, 2011 - 2:50AM

    sir!!! i salute u, the way u give answers to inidan media is appreciable ……..god bless u

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  • Abdul Ghafoor
    Dec 5, 2011 - 3:33AM

    AVM Chaudhry mentions that the Salala area is infested with the Taliban. I am no fan of the Taliban and consider them a regressive and extremist outfit, but I would not resort to say that the area was “infested” with the Taliban, especially because it is where they live.

    I’ll be equally concerned if someone were to suggest that Lahore is infested with the Punjabi Taliban.

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  • Ali
    Dec 5, 2011 - 3:44AM

    @LOK the writer is ex air force officer. Didn’t you read ”the Nato/US air package never closed in less than one kilometre from the border” which means PAF shouldn’t be blamed for not engaging the Nato/US air package.Looks like some blame game is going on between Army and PAF.

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  • Usman
    Dec 5, 2011 - 7:28AM

    @Meekal Ahmed:
    So an entire article of explaination is not enough to make you understand that this is more complicatd that just the PAF being ‘awake’ or not?

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  • Bammbayyaa
    Dec 5, 2011 - 9:33AM

    Just a lame attempt to show that we knew everything … buuttt…
    Anyway … it shows that when u are in a decpetion mode … u falter … when its the time to act … thats what happened … thats what is the phsyce of Pakistan now …
    Come clean … and everything will be OKK …

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  • Dec 5, 2011 - 10:32AM

    This barbaric attack was launched because NATO knew that there are handful of Infantrymen on Bolder & Volcano Posts equipped with G-3 Rifles, MG and at best some rocket launchers. Nothing they had to retaliate against such attack.

    We need to deploy shoulder fired SAM alongwith Infantry post to thwart any further such attack, but these SHORADS will only be effective against helicopters and low flying aircraft.

    However, involvement of PAF will also be required to take care of Med and High level Air Threat. USAF is fond of using the B-52 against helpless people from higher altitude.

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  • Fuzzy Z
    Dec 5, 2011 - 11:37AM

    @LOK:
    Fooling our own selves.I bet the Air Marshal was incompetent as the present crop of our Generals.Can he tell the other side of the truth?

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  • Parvez
    Dec 5, 2011 - 12:53PM

    Up to now the best article as to what may have happened and why. One aspect I can appreciate is that an armchair analysis after an event gains more depth when provided by someone who has possibly had exposure to situations like this. Then again this same knowledge can skilfully be used to camouflage the facts, but I don’t think this is the case here.

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  • Fuzzy Z
    Dec 5, 2011 - 2:20PM

    ill trained and ill equipped poor guys were left to fend themselves for hours.If OBL saga was a case of deceit and incompetence, this case is no less serious.The convoluted theory of strategic depth has left us dreadfully exposed.This is the time to rethink and engage in realpolitik.Enough of these Generals, Air Marshals and Admirals,they are just hot air and bluster,accumulating wealth and living luxuries lives.1965,1971 and Kargil,all wars were initiated by Pakistan and Lost.We were just given lies to believe.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Dec 5, 2011 - 2:57PM

    @Usman:

    The OBL raid was “complicated”; Mehran was “complicated”, now this is “complicated” so no one can ask for answers.

    Give me a break.

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  • malik
    Dec 5, 2011 - 2:59PM

    Shut down American supply route
    Drop all diplomatic ties with Americans
    Hunt down their drone if it dare come into Pakistani terrirtory
    All American embassies should be closed in Pakistan
    If they attack Pakistan react back with full force
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  • Yousuf Nazar
    Dec 5, 2011 - 4:03PM

    Mr. Shahzad Chaudhry

    Given the extreme level of distrust between Pakistan and the US/NATO, why do we continue to rely on them for onitoring the movements (especially air) on the western borders? Did it not become obvious after the OBL raid that we need to rely on ourselves and our radars to monitor the Western frontiers? In addition, the lack of coordibation between the air and ground commands, as you seem to imply, shows incompetence. The long and short of this is our military commanders need to get their act together and do a review of where the strategic and tactical gaps are and stop making excuses. If we need to make our radar mechanism better, then we should without any delay.

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  • Adil
    Dec 5, 2011 - 4:30PM

    My fellow Pakistanis the present time is difficult. However, i assure you the best policy right now
    would be “DONT ASK DONT TELL”. You cant even imagine what sort of incidents are coming at
    Pakistan in future.

    At last i just want to say ” Yeh jung muhajo pe nahi ladi jaegi”. Ya Allah Khair

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  • Sharfuddin
    Dec 5, 2011 - 7:31PM

    This was a God sent event to excuse ourselves from going to Bonn. Together with the Taliban we are the few people who are not in Bonn. At least the two of us are on the same “page”. (Remember the late 90s – we, together with KSA were perhaps the only countries recognizing the Taliban government). Come 2014 the Americans will probably leave.Recommend

  • Babloo
    Dec 5, 2011 - 9:20PM

    Taleban and Pakistan boycott Bonn meet ! LoL

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Dec 5, 2011 - 10:36PM

    @Yousuf Nazar:

    Yusuf, we HAVE early warning airborne surveillance aircraft in the PAF inventory from the Chinese and Sweden.

    I guess they were sleeping too.

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  • Author
    Dec 5, 2011 - 11:41PM

    @Meekal Ahmed
    Meekal Sb, A counter-question: would you consider at any time in the future for Pakistan to follow the IMF way? If so it may not be possible if both sides were to go to war. It really is quite a complex situation.

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  • Imran Ahsan Mirza
    Dec 6, 2011 - 7:28AM

    Pakistan lacks a policy on Taliban infestation. Islamic extremism is the biggest enemy of Pakistan not the US. America is very powerful and will try all it got to put its own order in Afghanistan regardless if Pak Army likes it or not. Everyone know the US does not trust Pakistan. The whole operation alongside the border cannot be conducted without some sort of assistance from Pak Army and Airforce. So there must be some cooperation going on since the Musharraf days. Now Pak Army feels imminent vaccum after US leaves Afghanistan. Instead of making a categorical policy to defeat Islamic extremism, Pak Army is using it again as a tested weapon to create its own order in Afghanistan. It is very unfrotunate. This Salala episode is an opportunity as part of a long term game Pak Army is pursuing. We have yet to see if Pak Amry has the capacity to deny American aid and perks for its elite class and also sustain this denial of services to US for coming months. The US is not like Soviet Union, which will pulled out without noise. The world is a different place now. The damn region is the backyard of Russia & China (2 major super powers), Pakistan and India (2 pigmy ‘super’ powers), Iran and Turkey (2 regional stakeholders). The American order will require great deal of diplomatic and miltary management, which I doubt is going to happen with so many diverse interests. As far as Afghanistan is concerend, they want money from where ever it comes. Currently India and US are offering it money and they are happy. Pakistan is not in a position to offer money but it carries the ultimate stick to herd it to its bleak future.

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  • HonestAbe
    Dec 10, 2011 - 12:59AM

    @malik:

    Yeah, that sounds like a great plan, watch your nation rot from within while extremist-backing cronies get closer and closer to your poorly guarded nukes.

    Perhaps a better plan would be…
    - Eliminate the terrorist sanctuaries by all means necessary, including cross-border raids into the FATA.
    - Drop all financial aid to Pakistan.
    - Designate the ISI as a global terrorist organization.
    - Eradicate Pakistan’s nuke stockpile.
    - Increase Afghan-Indian trade relations and cross-military training/co-ordination.

    The global community is getting beyond sick and tired of Pakistan’s duplicitous, two-timing behavior and if half the population wasn’t brainwashed for decades by the military regime, a revolution akin to Libya and Syrian would probably be taking place there now. Within ten years, the Pakistan military regime will fall, one way or another…

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  • RMkhan
    Dec 11, 2011 - 12:19AM

    “The Nato/US tactical centre in Afghanistan across these posts also has a Pakistani presence. The Pakistani major was woken by the American duty official and was informed of two things: one, that the Nato/ANA patrol had met fire and were under attack; and two, he sought from the major, information on any additional Pakistani posts in the area. Unsure of the intent, the major dithered from sharing information unless exact coordinates of the area in question were provided to him. Seven minutes later, the same official returned to inform the major that post ‘Volcano’ had been hit.”

    So Volcano was initially attacked for reasons unknown by US forces who claimed they were under attack. When the Pakistani Army officer stationed on the Afghan side of the border with US forces was informed of the attack and asked for guidance, he did nothing out of paranoia? Boulder was then leveled after the Pakistani officer did nothing… another case of an incompetent officer getting us in over our heads. This is a disgrace. The men on Boulder were killed for appearing to validate the US impression of events when the Boulder troops opened fire to try and protect Volcano. This entire second phase of the attacks WOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED IF THE PAKISTANI ARMY MAJOR DID HIS JOB.

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