Analysis: Salala’s ghost haunts Pakistan’s current diplomatic push

Published: November 27, 2012
A reconciliation within Afghanistan will go a long way from lifting America’s long shadow from the region. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

A reconciliation within Afghanistan will go a long way from lifting America’s long shadow from the region. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

A year ago, on November 26, 2011, two American Apache Longbow (AH-64D) attack helicopters, one AC-130H Spectre gunship and two F-15 Eagle fighter jets attacked two Pakistani posts, Boulder and Volcano, situated about one kilometre apart, at Salala in the Baizai tehsil of Mohmand Agency. The attack, carried out in two phases, killed 24 soldiers, including two officers.

The attack was coordinated and deliberate, its second phase carried out by American forces after the Pakistan Army informed the Isaf command that their forces were attacking Pakistani troops – and despite this information.

Pakistan reacted by blocking the Nato ground lines of communication (GLOC) and demanded an apology before the supply line would be unblocked. The Americans, while saying that they were “sorry” for the losses, refused to offer an apology by the White House.

A NATO inquiry said that both sides had made mistakes. Pakistan categorically rejected the inquiry report. It had earlier refused to be part of a joint inquiry. Top Pakistan Army officials denied the attack was unintentional.

The NATO story seemed implausible. It claimed that Pakistan was informed of the operational activity in that area. The NATO patrol received hostile fire and called for air support.

The attack helicopters and aerial platforms mistook the posts for insurgent encampments and engaged them.

It stretches credulity to believe that a force which had the means to deliver such deadly and accurate fire could not differentiate between army posts and the so-called insurgent encampments.

It would also be absurd for an insurgent ambush party to first fire at an enemy patrol and then concentrate in an encampment to present itself as a target for aerial platforms instead of dispersing.

Predictably, the incident brought the US-Pakistan relations to almost breaking point with the US pressing Pakistan to reopen the GLOC but without offering an apology.

However, the incident provoked such reaction in Pakistan that it became impossible for the government to climb down without a US apology.

A feeble ‘apology’ came in July this year, used by Pakistan as an exit strategy from the commitment trap it had got itself into.

Are there any lessons learnt? Yes and no. Yes, because the eight-month blockade forced the US to realise that it cannot dial up the pain without expecting a response from Pakistan.

It has to weigh the consequences of pressuring Pakistan and responding to the consequences against its larger strategic concerns in the region.

On the Pakistani side, the realisation has set in that climbing up on the escalatory ladder always puts more pressure on the weaker party than the stronger one.

Also, climbing higher on the ladder means the response in any next crisis will force Pakistan to start at the rung where the last crisis had ended.

But the broader strategic lessons have not been learnt. The operational and very often domestic political requirements still override the strategic imperative of cooperation.

The US wants quick results and that forces its hands into taking unilateral action. The use of drones is an important case in point, as are JSOC operations.

While tactically successful, neither has had the desired strategic result. The tick-tock of the clock is pressing and the requirement to create a narrative of victory means the pressure will be on Pakistan.

This doesn’t sync with Pakistan’s strategic concerns; nor does it ensure that Afghanistan will be returned to normalcy, one of the fundamental concerns of Pakistan, given its proximity to Afghanistan and the fact that an unstable Afghanistan is Pakistan’s nightmare.

This is where the current diplomatic efforts come in.

Pakistan has been trying to open a viable and sustainable bilateral track with Kabul and wants to ensure that the Karzai administration can work out a political reconciliation with the Taliban.

It also realises that the only way to relieve US pressure and increase negotiating space for itself vis-a-vis Washington requires that it make the bilateral track with Kabul efficient and deliverable. That has come about, albeit late.

A reconciliation within Afghanistan will go a long way towards lifting America’s long shadow from the region.

If it doesn’t come about, Washington will have greater reason to try and retain some bases in that country. That, more than anything, could bring the war to Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2012.

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