Fears have been expressed for a long time that successful resistance by the Pashtun Taliban against American occupation of Afghanistan and the imminent defeat of the "International Security Assistance Force" (ISAF which amounts to NATO led by the U.S.) would force Pentagon to broaden the theatre of war into Pakistan citing the presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda in its tribal areas to prolong the war.
If, as the polls indicate, the Republicans gain control of the US Senate in the coming mid terms, the Neocons, Tea Partiers and the conservatives can push for more attacks inside Pakistan on the plea that Taliban cannot be defeated unless their sanctuaries in Pakistan are not destroyed, a line that Pentagon takes.
Some American writers opine that Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (or FATA) would likely become the war zone on the pattern of ‘mission creep’ of Vietnam. Just as the Americans blundered into Cambodia and Laos to destroy the communist camps and lost the war, they are itching to make a similar mistake again.
Civilian Control of US Military in Question
The danger of such an eventuality is real, despite President Obama’s assurances of a lasting friendly relationship with Pakistan, unless the Obama White House reigns in its military leadership, which has shown signs of defiance, and assert civilian control over the nation’s war policies.
A Declaration of War on Pakistan
If Pentagon gets its way, this would be an extremely dangerous development. Amounting to a declaration of war on Pakistan, there is no way the Pakistan Army can sit back and watch US/NATO troops initiate action inside its borders. ISAF would then be pitched against half a million strong battle hardened Pakistan Army, in addition to the Taliban and same Pashtun tribes that straddle both sides of Pak-Afghan border.
If the US/NATO forces have not been able to subdue a far lesser number of Taliban fighters, how would they fare against such a force, remains to be seen?
One thing is certain though. This will give a new dimension to the American-led war in the so called AF-PAK region, send South and South West Asia up in flames and cause a huge set-back to American regional interests.
The recent threat by General Petraeus to undertake unilateral military operations inside Pakistan if the Pakistan Army failed to comply with the demand to eliminate the militant groups in North Waziristan, particularly the Haqqani Network, was followed through by NATO gunship helicopters, which violated Pakistan’s airspace in Waziristan’s Kurram Agency and attacked a border outpost on September 30, killing three Pakistani soldiers and injuring two.
Petraeus’ ‘Get Tough Policy’ and ‘Testing the Waters’
American media reports say that Gen. Petraeus, supported by President Obama’s national security advisor James Jones, strongly pushed for these attacks and convinced Obama administration to follow a “Get Tough Policy” towards Pakistan. This also resulted in an unusually high number of drone attacks recently.
To firmly nip in the bud any ISAF ambitions of building up on this little adventure, the Pakistan Army lodged a strong protest calling for an inquiry and so did the pliant, US installed, Zardari government in its own feeble way. ISAF agreed and the inquiry found the firing incident and earlier helicopter intrusions to be violations of Pakistan’s air space and deaths of Pakistani soldiers an avoidable mistake.
Islamabad demanded public apology, assurances that this would not happen again and action against those responsible for the deaths of Pakistani troops. Pakistan Army made it clear that these acts on the part of ISAF constituted a clear violation and breach of the UN mandate under which ISAF operates and this would not be acceptable in the future. Military sources also clarified that the said mandate “terminates” at the Afghanistan border and any impression being created by ISAF about the existence of an agreement over rules of “hot pursuit” is not factually correct.
Coming on the back of intensifying public criticism of drone attacks, the helicopter attack caused the public anger to boil over. Both the army and the government had to act, and act they did. As a retaliatory measure, one of the two supply route crossings at Pak-Afghan border was shut down indefinitely, only to be opened ten days later after hectic efforts, apologies and assurances by ISAF.
ISAF imports 80% of its crucial supplies, from food to oil, through Karachi port which are trucked to Afghanistan after travelling over a thousand miles through Pakistan to two border crossings at Torkham and Chaman. At any given time 3000-4000 ISAF containers and tankers, reportedly guarded by undercover Blackwater operatives, are on Pakistani roads, tearing up the roads and causing traffic jams.
The route closure caused a supply chain fiasco for ISAF. In no time, over 10,000 containers and fuel tankers were lined up on Pakistani side of the border, while stocks ran low in Afghanistan. Pakistan was well within its right to withhold a facility it provides to ISAF, not under any contractual obligation but as a gesture of support. During the 10-day wait, about 150 oil tankers and containers were torched by suspected Taliban and angry Pakistanis.
When launching their ‘get tough policy’ General Petraeus and the Pentagon underestimated the response of Pakistan Army that came to them as a surprise. According to Washington Post they even expected the border crossing to reopen within three days. Although in his book “Obama’s war” Bob Woodward says that US intelligence had "indicated the Pakistanis believed the US would not jeopardize their relationship" because of its dependence on Pakistan for its supply routes to Afghanistan, this was not taken into account.
Strained IR, Distrust and Forced Apologies
This strained relations between Pentagon and the Pakistan Army. Reportedly the crisis in US-Pakistan relations and the supply chain trauma that the ISAF had to face on account of route closure led to Jones’s departure ahead of his planned retirement later this year. Gareth Porter, writing for Inter Press Service, reports that “President Obama has clearly abandoned the tough line toward Pakistan represented by cross-border helicopter attacks and accelerated drone strikes in an effort to reduce tensions.”
In pushing his unilateral escalation of force General Petraeus allowed the element of distrust to creep back into US-Pakistan relations which President Obama had taken pains to remove after a long period of strained relations.
NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen was the first to regret the incident, pleading that the killing of three Pakistani soldiers was unintended. Initially dragging their feet but later under White House directive the US Ambassador in Islamabad - Ms Anne Peterson and ISAF Commander - General David Petraeus, made public apologies. This was followed by a letter from Admiral Mike Mullen to Pakistan’s army chief General Kayani expressing his deep regrets over the incident.
Pakistan’s Gains Leverage Over ISAF
By closing the border crossing, Pakistan established a powerful leverage over Washington and US/NATO command, one it can use in future to protect Pakistan’s sovereignty, stop cross-border raids and curtail drone attacks.
By forcing Washington to back off, Pakistan conveyed several clear messages. Pakistan is no Afghanistan and could not be taken for granted; its sovereignty and its national boundaries must be respected; its patience also had limits despite its close alliance with the US; and carrying the war into this country of 175 million people would, after all, not be a piece of cake. It also carried the reminder that Pakistan’s assistance remained a key element in ISAF’s operations in Afghanistan and is dependent upon respect for its sensitivities.
Although US/NATO command pretends that alternate supply routes via Central Asian countries could be used, the fact is that this will involve massive airlifts and time delays and has not been found very viable.
Pakistan Defends its Sovereignty. May force drawdown of Foreign Troops in Afghanistan.
This episode also made clear that the term AF-PAK coined by the Americans was a misnomer and should not be misinterpreted to mean that Afghanistan and Pakistan can be lumped together by ISAF for operational purposes. Pakistan is a separate entity, a sovereign country, which jealously guards it geographical boundaries. The mandate that ISAF was given for Afghanistan neither applied to Pakistan nor could it be extended to it.
The resulting scenario might even influence Obama administration’s thinking towards the war in another way. US officials have concluded that the war will remain unwinnable unless Pakistan changes its policy towards suspected Taliban sanctuaries in FATA. But if Pakistan refuses to change its policy and persists with a firm stand like the one it took recently, and if this forces Washington to back off like it did now, this might strengthen President Obama’s hand in insisting on a drawdown of troops to begin in July 2011.
There are wide spread concerns about a spiraling rise in CIA drones strikes in Waziristan that are inflicting heavy casualties. For several years CIA drones have attacked targets within FATA that were labeled as insurgent sanctuaries. While the US calls every one killed to be a terrorist, the fact is that numerous innocent men, women and children have lost their lives or have been injured and maimed. The seething tribesmen who suffer these losses become Taliban sympathizers, some even joining their ranks. In the end, the backlash translates into growing militancy in Pakistan.
America indulges in Extra Judicial Killings in Pakistan
The US has no legal mandate for drone attacks within the borders of another sovereign country and these amount to state terrorism that is in grave violation of human rights and of international law. The Zardari government remains completely unresponsive. A former chief of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, has demanded of the Pakistan Air Force to shoot down US drones - sentiments that are widely shared by the people and the rank and file of the armed forces.
Word has been leaked by Zardari government that it follows an agreement between the former regime of President Musharraf and the US administration in allowing these attacks. Being an extremely important issue of public interest this agreement, if there is one, must be released to the public.
The government is bound by the Constitution to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens and is therefore under obligation to revoke this unlawful agreement, unilaterally if necessary, as it illegally allows a foreign government to slaughter non combatant Pakistani citizens on mere suspicion of being terrorists, without apportioning blame or giving them a fair trial.
And if the Zardari government deliberately turns a blind eye to the killings of its citizens by a foreign power in exchange for the $2 billion in US aid annually and tens of millions of dollars in “black” payments it receives from CIA, it becomes an accomplice in the extra judicial killings of its citizens and must be held accountable.