Was NATO fire a mistake or message?
Another month, another incident with Pakistan. This time, it was a nighttime NATO airstrike against Pakistani border outposts that triggered the crisis. Pakistan says 25 of its soldiers were killed in the “unprovoked and indiscriminate” attack by NATO helicopters. NATO has issued apologies for the “tragic unintended incident.” But Islamabad has promised to retaliate for what it views as an act of aggression. In fact, the Pakistanis already have shut down the overland supply corridors that carry NATO war materiel into Afghanistan from Pakistani ports. In addition, Islamabad has demanded that the U.S. pull out of bases being used to conduct drone strikes.
To be sure, this could be what it appears on the surface: a friendly-fire mistake caused by the fog of war. There’s a reason the term was coined by the warriors of yesterday. Battle is chaos and confusion, especially at night.
Yet something tells me there’s more at play here than the fog of war.
As the Pakistani side rages about its innocent soldiers coming under attack while fighting our enemy, Afghan and NATO officials have made it clear that the helicopter strikes came in response to repeated fire from the Pakistani side of the border. More specifically, the fire came from “a Pakistan military outpost,” according to a Wall Street Journal report on the incident. That’s what triggered the NATO air attack, which, according to an Afghan official interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, “Pakistani officials were informed of…before it took place.”
This is nothing new. Pakistani forces have fired on U.S. and other NATO helicopters for years. Given that Taliban, Haqqani and al Qaeda forces have no helicopters, the Pakistanis cannot claim to be doing this by mistake.
Moreover, elements within the Pakistani security, military and intelligence apparatus—which helped create the Taliban in a short-sighted attempt to gain nominal control over Afghanistan—continue to support the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The Haqqani network, it pays to recall, has been involved in several terrorist attacks on civilians in Afghanistan (including the Kabul siege earlier this year) and in attacks on coalition troops. In September, Adm. Mike Mullen called the Haqqani network “a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI).”
Haqqani operatives in Afghanistan, “with ISI support,” in Mullen’s words, have planned and conducted truck bomb attacks on U.S. and NATO bases, assaults on the U.S. embassy and deadly attacks on commercial and government facilities in Kabul. The ISI-backed Haqqani network was responsible for the 2009 attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA operatives. According to the International Herald Tribune, ISI’s “S Wing” is coordinating Taliban operations in southern Afghanistan.
“The support of terrorism is part of their national strategy,” Mullen bluntly said of the dysfunctional, duplicitous Pakistani security, military and intelligence apparatus.
It gets worse. The Pakistani government has ceded vast stretches of the country’s laughably misnamed Federally Administered Tribal Areas to enemy forces. And after SEAL Team 6 found Osama bin Laden hiding in plain sight just outside Islamabad, Pakistan expelled two-thirds of the U.S. military personnel assigned to training the Pakistani army in counterinsurgency. If Islamabad truly were on America’s side in the war on terror, then that action is akin to firing your surgeon and oncologist after they have excised a brain tumor.
That brings us to the most damning piece of evidence against the Pakistani security, military and intelligence apparatus: Osama bin Laden was permitted to live—for years—in a mansion just miles outside Pakistan’s capital, in a city that serves as a garrison for Pakistani troops, a host to the Pakistani military academy and a retirement destination for Pakistani military brass. It’s impossible to believe that Pakistani military and intelligence personnel in the area—or government officials in nearby Islamabad—were unaware that the most wanted man on earth was living next door.
Some say that all of this is a function of an intense power struggle between the Pakistani military and civilian government—and within the military itself. That may be true, but excuses and motives and root causes don’t change the reality of what is happening in Pakistan and/or what Pakistan is allowing to happen.
In fact, if Pakistan’s civilian government is unable to prevent its U.S.-equipped security, military and intelligence apparatus from firing on U.S. helicopters and unable to order its U.S.-equipped security, military and intelligence apparatus to apprehend America’s enemies, then that means Pakistan’s civilian government is not really in charge of its security, military and intelligence apparatus. If, on the other hand, Pakistan’s civilian government is ordering its security, military and intelligence apparatus to fire on American choppers, fund Haqqani terrorists and hide al Qaeda’s founding fathers, then it is an enemy regime. Neither alternative is particularly comforting.
The point of this recap is simple: Perhaps someone down in the NATO chain of command—or somewhere higher up in the U.S. chain of command—has had enough with Pakistan’s duplicity and sent a message last weekend. If so, that someone has brought Americans and their government closer to understanding that Pakistan is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.
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