Nightmare at Salala

Published: December 1, 2011
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The writer is director world affairs at PTV and has previously worked at Geo and Dunya

The writer is director world affairs at PTV and has previously worked at Geo and Dunya

I arrived at the director-general military operation’s briefing on November 29 traumatised and almost convinced that NATO may have attacked the Pakistani posts in Mohmand Agency as part of “Operation Punishment”.

But while Major-General Ishfaq Nadeem was being crucified by many journalists and their insane suggestions that why did he not call in Pakistan Air force to shoot down the US helicopters, my mind was racing on the massive information he had provided; information on terrain, videos and stills of the hills and Pakistani posts, the nature of engagements and especially the kind of procedure-ridden coordination that exists between the Pakistani military and Nato. And then it started to flicker in my mind that perhaps a horrible mistake, errors of judgment or failures in communication during the ‘fog of war’, may have happened.

Having said this, and in all fairness, the evidence we have seen on record, and the contradictory stories being planted by unnamed Nato officials in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and Reuters paint a disturbing picture and the onus clearly lies on Nato to explain itself.

Any objective mind would like to know: why did NATO abandon the understandings reached in the “Mutually Agreed Mechanisms for Operations Close to Borders”? How come operations were being conducted close to Pakistani borders without the Pakistani side being informed? This question becomes all the more important since these posts were established to prevent the entry of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan militants into Pakistan from the Afghan side and Nato/Isaf never conducted any supporting operations in this particular area in the past several months.

If Nato/Isaf were under serious fire from an enemy that justified massive air retaliation then how come they suffered no causalities? How come Nato commanders ignored or confused GPS-determined stationary positions, provided in map grids, at hill tops that are over 2,200 metres high, manned by almost 50 soldiers and officers, using the kind of weapons Taliban guerrillas will not use?  How could intermittent fire by gunship helicopters and support by airplanes continue for more than an hour when the Pakistani side was communicating to Nato in Kabul and to military liaison officers based in Islamabad?

These questions are difficult in their own right and assume a much greater importance when we view them amidst the overall perceptions that are taking shape since the Taliban attacks on the US embassy in Kabul and Admiral Mike Mullen’s much repeated comments against the ISI. The un-ending chatter on the web provides a peep; while most Pakistanis are convinced that the attack was a deliberate act and the American military is sending a signal to Pakistani military for its perceived sin of not doing enough against the Taliban, many American and interestingly Indian commentators on the web are enthusiastically supporting the same contention though with different emotions. They argue that Nato had to do this to teach the “double-crossing Pakistanis” a much-needed lesson; and that more of the same is needed, and that now is the time also to call Pakistan’s bluff regarding its severing of Nato supply lines.

The recent BBC documentary, “Secret Pakistan” that relies upon Bruce Riedel and Amarullah Saleh as experts to prove that Pakistan is double-crossing only adds to these perceptions.

Even before this, fears have been growing in Pakistani minds that the Pentagon and the CIA are consciously working on a blueprint for widening the Afghan conflict to Pakistan’s tribal areas. While there may be a high level of paranoia on this side of the border, there seems to be some truth to the Pakistani fears that a ‘mindset’ is evolving, in Washington and Kabul, which believes that there is no need to show any flexibility towards the Afghan insurgency. It also thinks that if pushed hard enough, the Pakistanis will come around to supporting the desired outcome of the conflict.

If there are some elements inside the Pentagon or the CIA who think that escalating conflict into Pakistan’s tribal areas will pressurise the Pakistanis to behave then there are others who think that creating a scenario of tough dealing with Pakistan may help in an election year. And there are yet other ‘regional interests’ inside Washington that would very much like to set a stage, and a slippery path, whereby the enormous power of America can be physically used to humble and diminish Pakistan’s regional posture to fashion their ‘regional agendas’.

It is precisely in this context that Pakistan’s strong reaction to Nato’s attack can be best understood. The decision to cut off Nato supplies, and a review of intelligence and diplomatic relations, the symbolic denying of Shamsi base to the Americans and the boycotting of the Bonn Conference are thus attempts to send a clear message that it cannot be business as usual. And as brilliantly argued by Ejaz Haider on these pages, “Do away with this charade” (November 30) this is a much-needed attempt to put the brakes now to challenge and neutralise this ‘mind-set’ since if it were left unchecked, it could lead to disastrous consequences in a difficult asymmetrical relationship.

The onus to resolve this crisis squarely lies on Washington. It will soon find out what really happened in the wee hours of November 26. Most of it may never be made public; much of it may not be important but the context is important and it is Washington’s responsibility to engage constructively with a shocked and paranoid Pakistan, in public and behind the scenes, to defuse the fears that if left unaddressed will cause further instability in the region.

Maybe it is time to remember that US-Pakistan relations, even in their much-condemned transactional nature, have a history that is 50 years old. Only time will tell whether the new alliances that are being conceived and planned will really work. Washington thus needs to look beyond the emotions of the moment and the frustrations, which may be more of a tactical nature. The pressures of Afghan endgame, of withdrawal deadlines and of presidential elections are no doubt important but should not be allowed to irreversibly damage a relationship that despite its ‘unsexy nature’ has always provided the value of a much-needed ‘shock absorber’ in this region.

Both Washington and Islamabad have to look beyond Afghanistan and withdrawal deadlines. A recent article by Harvard Professor Stephen Walt titled “End of the American Era”, in The National Interest, made for provocative reading. Professor Walt argues with formidable evidence that Washington may be losing its leverage but will continue to shape the world for the greater part of the 21st century. America’s engagement and need to provide stability in this region will continue beyond the Afghanistan endgame and withdrawal whenever it happens.

Washington thus needs to interpret the ‘nightmare at Salala’ and the challenge created by it, in its wider context. On one hand it has to soothe a ‘traumatised Pakistan’ and on the other it has to neutralise the ‘reactive mind-set’ in the Washington Beltway; both demons if unchecked may further destabilise this region.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2011.

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Reader Comments (23)

  • rehmat
    Dec 2, 2011 - 2:18AM

    “ow come Nato commanders ignored or confused GPS-determined stationary positions, provided in map grids, at hill tops that are over 2,200 metres high, manned by almost 50 soldiers and officers, using the kind of weapons Taliban guerrillas will not use? “

    Because Pakistan has a history of using its formal army for attacking neighbours while pretending that those people who are attacking are jihadis. They did this in 1965, they did this in Kargill and have continued to do on the Western front. The Pak army also has a history of providing fire cover to push jihadis across the border. The intent of such fire cover is not to kill soldiers on the other side but prevent them from stopping the infiltration.

    This is why General Athar is pretty disingenuous when he asks for casualties on the other side. The purpose of friendly fire by Pakistani soldiers was not to wound but to stop the NATO action against Afghan Taliban infiltrators.

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  • You Said It
    Dec 2, 2011 - 2:32AM

    On one hand it has to soothe a ‘traumatised Pakistan’ and on the other it has to neutralise the ‘reactive mind-set’ in the Washington Beltway; both demons if unchecked may further destabilise this region.

    Would be true if Washington didn’t believe that Pakistan is destabilizing the region.

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  • Pro Bono Publico
    Dec 2, 2011 - 2:47AM

    Only in Pakistan can an employee of a government-owned TV write for a foreign partnered newspaper.
    To whom is Pirzada loyal? The government that pays him his daily wage or the newspaper where he writes occasionally.

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  • Maulana capitalist
    Dec 2, 2011 - 4:32AM

    Spot on Moeed

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  • Devils Advice
    Dec 2, 2011 - 5:11AM

    emphasized textAmerica’s engagement and need to provide stability in this region will continue beyond the Afghanistan endgame and withdrawal whenever it happens.

    If you think America will play a role in this region for stability then Why Pakistani establishment go every now and then to Taller then Mountain and deeper then sea FRIEND?

    emphasized textmany American and interestingly Indian commentators on the web are enthusiastically supporting the same contention though with different emotions.

    Does Any Pakistani article can be finished without INDIA word ?? Why so much of Fear ?

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  • Prakash
    Dec 2, 2011 - 6:58AM

    In the aftermath of memo gate,Pakistani Political leadership was on back foot and to show that it does not have any complicity with US,it has taken all this quick footed action after this Salala incident.Pakistan may tactically win this time but its strategic relationship after 2014 will suffer.This may bring all kind of bad news for Pakistan as its export are mainly routed to US, US is its biggest donor and its elite are oriented to US not to China.

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  • IndianAthiest
    Dec 2, 2011 - 8:00AM

    Will Pakistan surrender the coalition support fund it received so far from NATO/US in protest against NATO attack?. Pakistan is getting paid for every drone that takes off from its territory. Pakistani government is actually fooling its citizen.

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  • Hammad
    Dec 2, 2011 - 10:16AM

    Moeed Pirzada shared this article on facebook with this statement

    “posting my article from Express Tribune; however it is somewhat changed from the original I wrote, so I will post the original as well….check if you find ‘meanings’ have changed in the print version”
    Now we need EXPLANATION from tribune editor. Why censor?

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  • Sabrina Khan
    Dec 2, 2011 - 11:08AM

    @Indian Athiest, that is a good pointed question, this CSF money has already been suspended for the past several months, because the US wanted greater performance as per their needs, this may be a good opportunity for the Pakistani government to effectively delink itself from this difficult arrangement which is at this stage only getting more and more problematic. However rationally speaking if Pakistani military did not agree to US demands, and if they did not capitulate soon enough, the US will find more coercive methods to bring them to knees. You are 100% right, CSF is problematic but I suspect that even without CSF Americans will get their way, however refusing the CSF arrangement will increase Islamabad’s policy options…

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  • Truth Seeker
    Dec 2, 2011 - 11:19AM

    @Prakash:
    Now China will be asked to buy same goods which Americans were buying from Pakistan. Russia will be asked to compensate the losses by importing goods being imported by NATO nations.

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  • Moeed Pirzada
    Dec 2, 2011 - 12:27PM

    @Hammad_ Ref your comments on my Facebook post, before this becomes more misleading; there was no censor by the paper, as may be implied in your comment; however as happens in editing the meaning sometimes changes; in the first para, my original words were that “cannot be ruled out” while in paper it has become “may have happened”…which gives a definite sense to my belief that it was necessarily an accident; I still think that the probability of mistake is much smaller and NATO ought to prove that. thanks! – Post in FB was to check if readers detect this or not_ Moeed Pirzada

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  • Tony Singh
    Dec 2, 2011 - 1:18PM

    Mr Autor,
    What is your opinion on the comment by Mr. Rehmat? Doesn’t he have a point? And viewed from that angle, was NATO not right to attack in self defense?

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Dec 2, 2011 - 3:05PM

    What is so “insane” about the suggestion for air support from our side?

    Even if they had stayed over-head at 40,000 feet, their mere presence would have been a source of distraction and cause the intruders to pause. Lives may have been saved.

    In a spearate story here, the PAF did not respond because of “communication failure”. As I asked there, do they have one phone in these posts?

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  • Farhan
    Dec 2, 2011 - 3:45PM

    @Pro Bono Publico:
    Whats wrong in writing for other paper? I dont see any issue as far as he is clear and clean in his writing

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  • Ali tanoli.
    Dec 2, 2011 - 6:58PM

    @rehmat
    What about socalled super powers do for there socalled intrest did not they they killed so many peoples and terrorized whole countries but u never said any thing for that why its not
    a terrorism ???? and india dont want to occupy pakistan but never leave a chance to missed.
    if india is really intrested in peace then why dont they solve the kashmir problem the cause
    of all misadventures in south asia.

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  • rehmat
    Dec 2, 2011 - 9:20PM

    @Meekal Ahmed: “What is so “insane” about the suggestion for air support from our side?
    Even if they had stayed over-head at 40,000 feet, their mere presence would have been a source of distraction and cause the intruders to pause. Lives may have been saved”

    Meekal saab that is exactly what SHOULD have happened but did not because the Pak army leadership has the policy of running with hares and hunting with the hounds.

    The whole point about communication failure is inconsistent with what ISPR said a couple of days back i.e. they pleaded with NATO to stop the shelling but NATO ignored their please. So if they were pleading with NATO, they cannot claim to be unaware. Why did they not scramble the jets – which today they say they would have but for communication issues.

    The army leadership shows a lot of bluster but does not follow through. This happened in Raymond Davis case. It happened in Navy Seals case and it has happened now.

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  • Muhammad Ahmad
    Dec 2, 2011 - 10:42PM

    Mr.Moeed Pirzada
    Well your were there at the beefing of DG MO. What are the feelings of the military officers at this particular incident.
    What do you think that it was the technical failure of our military that they had not responded effectively on attackers if yes then why we are spending a lion share of national money on our military.
    Now it is time that not only the Govt have to take action against the NATO but also a secret inquiry must have to be conducted to find out the facts that why our soldiers had not responded effectively on spot.
    I think such kind of steps are compulsory to make our army more stronger by punishing the culprits inside the army We have to set examples that we can take action against the black ships inside the army. If countries like Srilanka, Turkey and India can take action against their military officers than why not Pakistan. Recommend

  • Somy
    Dec 2, 2011 - 10:49PM

    @rehmat:
    spot on analysis.

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  • Prakash
    Dec 3, 2011 - 5:03AM

    @Truth Seeker:
    Pakistan mainly export textiles to USA and if there was market for Pak export for textiles in China and Russia-it would already taken place(as China & Russia has MFN status and as consequence Chinese import has already destroyed many sector of Pak economy). Why Pakistan is so eager to get concession from EU for its textile export (BTW EU is basically means NATO with which Pakistan is fighting now)–,If it has ready market available in China and Russia.China is itself exporting textile, so there is hardly any chance for Pakistani textiles to compete in China’s market.
    USA is still world power and can influence the International Financial Institution to break the back of Pak’s economy,which is already evident as the Pak Rupee value is sliding against Dollar and making Pak import more costly and debt cost higher.Most of Pak foreign remittance also comes from Western Country, which can also be checked by making different kind of rules and regulation.Besides all this, Pakistan can be diplomatically isolated.

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  • Basit
    Dec 3, 2011 - 8:36AM

    @rehmat:
    And America bahaudar has track record of not only arming various insurgent and rebel groups throughout the world, but also has the distinct honour of openly invading and occupying at least 3 countries in the last 60 years.

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  • Dec 3, 2011 - 9:40AM

    @rehmat
    Pakistan has been at war with India since its inception due to Indian unjust actions and intrasigent behaviour. Skirmishes on Kashmir Line of Control with hostile India, can’t be considered to be similar to those of NATO action, because in this case Pakistan is a partner in Global War on Terror.

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  • rehmat
    Dec 4, 2011 - 1:41AM

    @sana: “@rehmat
    Pakistan has been at war with India since its inception due to Indian unjust actions and intrasigent behaviour. Skirmishes on Kashmir Line of Control with hostile India, can’t be considered to be similar to those of NATO action, because in this case Pakistan is a partner in Global War on Terror.”

    I am not comparing deaths of Indian soldiers by Pakistanis with this instance. I know the difference. I am referring to the lies i.e. Pakistan pretended that those who attacked KArgill were not PAkistani soldiers but mujahids when in fact they WERE Pakistani soldiers.

    So my point was that just as in the past Pakistani soldeirs have attacked neighbours while pretending that the act was done bey free lancers, the same thing could have happened inviting retaliation.

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  • rehmat
    Dec 4, 2011 - 1:44AM

    @Basit: “@rehmat:
    And America bahaudar has track record of not only arming various insurgent and rebel groups throughout the world, but also has the distinct honour of openly invading and occupying at least 3 countries in the last 60 years.”

    If US has made certain decisions, it has paid an economic and geopolitical price for that. IT is unclear how that is relevant while we are trying to assess the circumstances that could have led to this situation? The context of my statement was directly addressing a specific question anked by the author. It was not my intent to write world history.

    I also do not consider myself to be Allah that I have the right to judge everyone.

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