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.