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NATO attack on Pakistan: A blatant aggression: Analysis

By Ikram Sehgal: A defence and political analyst.
[Cry wolf is an expression that means "raise a false alarm", derived from the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf]

The compulsions for survival have driven our leaders over the past decade to allow the US-Pakistan relationship to gradually degenerate into a master-slave relationship. Pakistan is now subjected to various insults across the board periodically; in the past year the vilification of the Pakistan Army and the ISI by key US public officials has become a regular affair. To add injury to the never-ending insults, 24 of our soldiers were brutally murdered by the strafing of four US helicopter gunships; most of them died in the first attack while asleep. While the borders may not be well marked, the map reference coordinates of our position at Salala – two kilometres well inside Pakistan – were well defined; the US and Nato violated standard operating procedures (SOPs) governing coordination with Pakistan. 

Universal perception holds that this was a calculated act of provocation for our perceived support for the Taliban. Or was it more than that; the pre-meditated murder being carried out with a more sinister motive? The reaction in the drawing rooms of the elite matched the outrage in the streets, the near universal cry being “enough is enough”. PM Gilani rode the crest of the public anger with his “no further business as usual” stance.

To quote M K Bhadrakumar from a recent article, “Pakistan’s doublespeak (about drones) may be ending. Future US drone operations may have to be conducted factoring in the possibility that Pakistan might regard them as violations of its air space.” What he went on to say was more meaningful, “Washington may have seriously erred if the intention on Friday night was to draw out the Pakistani military into a retaliatory mode and then to hit it with a sledgehammer and make it crawl on its knees pleading mercy.”

The perfunctory “regret” aside, there is not even a hint of an apology; but then, which master has ever apologised to a slave? To its credit, the Defence Cabinet Committee (DCC) did not turn the other cheek as usual. Instead, it decided to (1) close Nato’s supply through Pakistani territory immediately (2) demand the US vacate Shamsi airbase (meant for drone operations) within 15 days and (3) “revisit and undertake a complete review” of all “programmes, activities and cooperative arrangements” with the US, Nato and the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), including in “diplomatic, political and intelligence” areas. The Federal Cabinet went one up in deciding not to participate in the Bonn Conference that is to be held in early December.

The 140,000 (97,000 US and 43,000 Nato) Isaf troops depend on fuel, food and equipment coming from outside landlocked Afghanistan. Spokesman Lt Gen Keeley insisted that their operations will not be affected because “Isaf uses a vast supply and distribution network to ensure coalition forces remain well-stocked.” Less than half is funnelled through the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN) encompassing Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many knowledgeable logistical experts maintain that contrary to Isaf claims the NDN is not adequate for supplies in the longer-term, particularly because heavy equipment, stores and aviation fuel come through Pakistan. Speaking on NBC News, respected US defence analyst retired US General Barry McCaffrey warned that the coalition effort in Afghanistan was “one step short of a strategic crisis. I do not believe we can continue operations at this rate, so we’ve got to talk to them, we’ve got to pay them, we’ve got to apologise for this strike. We have no option, literally.”

To quote my article “Terms of Endearment” published on September 29, 2011, “Our civilian and military sacrifices compare at a ratio of almost 10:1 to all Afghan civilian and coalition forces put together. Is it an amazing coincidence that every time the PPP coalition is in danger of a meltdown, the army and the ISI are put on the block by the US to relieve the existential threat to this inept and corrupt Pakistani government?” This incongruous thought becomes stronger two months later; was the Salala strike meant to bail out Zardari because of the Haqqani memo and or the NRO? Was the helicopter attack meant only as a warning shot, misfiring when a missile hit a billet full of soldiers sleeping off duty, and the high casualty figures raised a storm? 

Nevertheless the Nato strike did shift attention from both the memo and the NRO. Unfortunately for Zardari, Husain Haqqani is not present in Washington DC to give events the usual spin about “the danger to democracy”. It would be nice if the president and supreme commander came out personally with a strong statement condemning this murderous attack instead of oblique references through his spokesman. It may not altogether eliminate the pervasive suspicion about his inclinations and motives but it would go some way in partially dispelling the prevailing notion of all this being meant to distract the focus from him.

Teetering perilously on a fail-safe line as a much-vilified partner in the US-led war, continuing without a defined “terms of engagement”, is impossible. Former governor Huntsman (and a Republican presidential candidate) correctly termed our relationship as being one of a “transactional” nature. “Out-of-the-box” thinking must provide for a genuinely productive and meaningful relationship in the future. 

People like Sandy Berger and Bruce Reidel have brushed off the Pakistani reaction as being without substance, confidently predicting we will be back “on line” within days – the dangers of our “crying wolf” once too often! The acid test of our political (and military) leaders will be to put national interest before personal salvation. Effective in his own quiet way, Kayani must comprehend the consequences of his remaining a perennial “silent soldier”. While he could possibly have considered fading from the scene as an option (the first year of his three-year extension expired coincidentally on November 27), he has responsibilities not only to the soldiers dying under his command but also to the people of this country.

With the entire Republican slate of US presidential candidates baying for our blood, I wrote two months ago, “The US Congress would do this country the greatest favour if it passes the Bill to cut off aid to Pakistan; this government can than declare freedom! First, we should re-affirm our commitment to continue fighting the war on terror, but on our own terms. Second, we must pull out as many troops as we can from Fata and mobilise the tribal militias as in the past. Third, we must not take any further aid of any kind, economic or military, saddled with conditions. Fourth, we must charge transit fees (and the wear and tear to our infrastructure) at internationally acceptable rates for all goods passing through Pakistani territory.” The Nato containers and oil tankers stuck in Pakistani territory must be allowed through as they present a security threat but no more should be offloaded from ships till we have a suitable agreement for payment of adequate transit fees in place.

To preserve sanity in a future relationship, sometimes a divorce is necessary. Pakistan must disengage from the war in Afghanistan while continuing its own war against terrorism within Pakistan. If the US wants to shed the blood of its young soldiers, propping up someone like Karzai for the next 50 years – that is its call.


A senior Pakistani army official has said a NATO cross-border air attack that killed 24 soldiers was a deliberate, blatant act of aggression, hardening Pakistan's stance on an incident that could hurt efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
Islamabad decided on Tuesday not to attend a major conference on the post-2014 future of Afghanistan in Germany next week, an angry riposte to the attack that threatens to set back peace efforts in Pakistan's troubled neighbor.

Continuing Pakistan's angry tone, Major General Ishfaq Nadeem, director general of military operations, said NATO forces were alerted they were attacking Pakistani posts, but helicopters kept firing. His comments, from a briefing to editors, were carried in local newspapers on Wednesday that characterized the attack as blatant aggression.

"Detailed information of the posts was already with ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), including map references, and it was impossible that they did not know these to be our posts," The News quoted Nadeem as saying at the briefing held at army headquarters on Tuesday.

NATO helicopters and fighter jets attacked two military border posts in northwest Pakistan on Saturday in the worst incident of its kind since Islamabad allied itself with Washington in 2001 in the war on militancy.

Fury over the attack is growing, with another protest in the city of Lahore and more tough editorials in newspapers.

The helicopters appeared near the post around 15 to 20 minutes past midnight, opened fire, then left about 45 minutes later, Nadeem was quoted as saying. They reappeared at 0115 local time and attacked again for another hour, he said.

Nadeem said that, minutes before the first attack, a U.S. sergeant on duty at a communications centre in Afghanistan told a Pakistani major that NATO special forces were receiving indirect fire from a location 15 km (9 miles) from the posts.

The Pakistanis said they needed time to check and asked for coordinates. Seven minutes later, the sergeant called back and said "your Volcano post has been hit," Nadeem quoted the sergeant as saying.

Nadeem concluded that confirmed NATO knew the locations of the Pakistani posts before attacking, said The News.


The NATO attack shifted attention away from Pakistan's widely questioned performance against militants who cross its border to attack U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, and has given the military a chance to reassert itself.

Islamabad's decision to boycott next week's meeting in Bonn will deprive the talks of a key player that could nudge Taliban militants into a peace process as NATO combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday Pakistan's decision to boycott the conference was "regrettable" but hoped to secure Islamabad's cooperation in future.

"Nothing will be gained by turning our backs on mutually beneficial cooperation," Clinton told reporters in South Korea.

The army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history and sets security and foreign policy, faced strong criticism from both the Pakistani public and its ally, the United States, after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The al Qaeda leader had apparently been living in a Pakistani garrison town for years before U.S. special forces found and killed him in a unilateral raid in May.

Pakistanis criticized the military for failing to protect their sovereignty, and angry U.S. officials wondered whether some members of military intelligence had sheltered him. Pakistan's government and military said they had no idea bin Laden was in the country.

The army seems to have regained its confidence, and won the support of the public and the government in a country where anti-American sentiment runs high even on rare occasions when relations with Washington are healthy.

More than 1,000 students from a hardline Pakistani religious party protested in Lahore, yelling "Death to NATO" and "Death to America."

"If NATO and America do something like this again, we are going to turn Pakistan into their graveyard," said 23-year-old university student Zahoor Ahmad.

History student Mudassir Durrani said: "This attack is a slap in the faces of the Pakistanis who support America. It is time for secular and religious forces to come together to fight America."

NATO hopes an investigation it promised will defuse the crisis and that confidence-building measures can repair ties.

But the military is firmly focused on NATO, and analysts say it is likely to take advantage of the widespread anger to press its interests in any future peace talks on Afghanistan.

The army is well aware that many Pakistanis believe the war on militancy their country joined has only served U.S. interests while thousands of Pakistani soldiers have died fighting.

"If the military and government are not in sync with the public opinion, they are seen as the bad guys, they are seen as the lackeys of the Americans," said Mahmud Durrani, a former national security chief and ambassador to Washington.

"The leadership has no choice but to condemn it (NATO). The anger in the public is phenomenal."

Exactly what happened at the posts along an unruly and poorly defined border is still unclear.

A Western official and an Afghan security official who requested anonymity said NATO troops were responding to fire from across the border. Pakistan says the attack was unprovoked.

Both explanations are possibly correct: that a retaliatory attack by NATO troops took a tragic, mistaken turn in harsh terrain where differentiating friend from foe can be difficult.

Nadeem was adamant that all communications channels had informed NATO that it was attacking Pakistani positions. "They continued regardless, with impunity," The News quoted him as saying.

(Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton in ISLAMABAD and Mubasher Bukhari in LAHORE; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Paul Tait)

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