The Nato attack on two military check posts in the Mohmand Agency early Saturday morning was an “unprovoked act of blatant aggression,” said the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) Major General Ishfaq Nadeem on Tuesday, adding that all options remained open to the government and the military. “The final decision rests with the prime minister. We are considering a range of options,” he told journalists at a briefing, adding that the military will have its input into the decisions taken. A review of the incident is under way at the GHQ, he said.
The DGMO said he was not authorised to comment on what specific counter measures were being considered to cope with such situations in the future and added these would be finalised after the completion of the continuing investigation into the incident.
He went into comprehensive detail about the sequence of events known so far, explaining that a check post code-named Volcano first came under attack at around 15 to 30 minutes after midnight. A nearby check post, code-named Boulder, responded with 12.7 mm anti-aircraft weapons and mortars after the Volcano check post came under attack from gunship helicopters.
Subsequently, check post Boulder also came under attack and all communication was lost with both check posts. But before communication was lost, company commander Major Mujahid headed for Volcano and Boulder to investigate and was killed as the helicopters re-engaged. Amongst the 24 men killed that night was also Captain Usman who leaves behind a widow and a 3-month-old baby daughter.
The DGMO said the two posts were located at a place from where there has been no cross-border infiltration, though militant attacks from the other side had been continuing. Settled villages were two-three kilometres away from the posts and the posts themselves were about 300-400 metres inside Pakistan borders.
The two check posts, he maintained, could not be mistaken for militant sanctuaries because the other side had been provided all available information about the number of Pakistani posts and their locations. The men at the posts were uniformed and the posts were well-defined. The DGMO further said the Pakistan Army believed that Nato was monitoring the transmissions that night and knew they had hit Volcano checkpost.
The posts were being manned by the experienced and battle-hardened 7-AK battalion which was equipped with both line and wireless communications equipment, but armed for dealing only with militant activity but not repelling an aerial assault. “The troops are geared for fighting terrorists and not border security,” he said.
The Pakistan Army maintains an 8,200 man presence in Mohmand Agency following military operations to clear the region of militants, with 29 border checkposts in along the border while there are only 14 on the Afghan side, manned predominantly by Afghan police. A total of 820 check posts are maintained in the tribal belt along the border.
By 1 a.m. all channels of communications with the other side were activated and the helicopters were pulled back. But as Pakistani troops moved from one post to the other to assess the damage and aid the injured, the helicopters reappeared and pinned them down. Some 26 artillery airbursts were fired by the Pakistani side and the engagement lasted until 0215.
Answering a question, he said the civil authorities including the president, the prime minister and the foreign and defence ministers were informed in the “morning” about the incident which began around midnight and lasted for two hours.
The reason for the implied delay in informing the civil authorities, he said, was because a complete picture had not emerged until daybreak.
It was clear from General Nadeem’s briefing that there was misleading information being provided to the Pakistan military from the start. Just before the attack, a Pakistani officer at the regional tactical center was informed by an American sergeant that their special forces had received indirect fire from Gora Pai, located some 15 kilometres away from Volcano post. And after 7 minutes, a woman officer informed him that the fire had, in fact, come from Volcano, which had been hit in retaliation.
The DGMO was dismissive of previous joint inquiries conducted into three earlier incidents. “There have been joint inquiries and they all came to naught. They give a version not based on facts as we know them,” he said, adding that Pakistan did not initiate firing at any point that night.
The DGMO listed the standard operating procedures that exists in the border coordination mechanism that entails sharing information on impending operations in advance, particularly if these operations come within two kilometers of the border; to immediately communicate if one side comes under fire with the responsibility to take action from the country from where the attack originated; and cessation of fire when communication established. “All SOPs were violated that night,” said General Nadeem.
He further elaborated that while the helicopters intruded into Pakistani airspace on an intermittent basis, supporting jets did not enter Pakistani airspace.
The central question remains why the Pakistan Air Force did not respond immediately to the attack. General Nadeem said there was “a haze” at the time, adding Pakistan Air Force interceptors did not scramble when the two helicopters from the other side violated the border, because initially it seemed the violation was only marginal.
Furthermore, according to him, the two helicopters had pulled back midway through giving the impression the attack had ended, but returned for another attack.
AVM (retd) Shahzad Chaudhry told Express Tribune that “the air force could have scrambled but you have to decide if you want a shooting war with America. With only 200-300 meters between the border, our jets would have entered Afghanistan. It is the consequences you have to live with.”
(Read: A grave crisis in Pakistan-US relations)
Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2011.