High Noon in Pakistan

Islamabad interferes with NATO's war effort -- and forces the question of whether it's a friend or foe.

NATO helicopter gunships recently made an incursion into Pakistani territory, pursuing Taliban fighters who had conducted an attack in Afghanistan and fled back into Pakistan, believing themselves to be safe there. They were mistaken, and they paid for their underestimation of NATO’s willingness to hunt them down with their lives. Pakistan protested.

The problem is that if the Pakistanis cannot curtail free movement by the Taliban across their  border with Afghanistan, then NATO is going to have to do it for them. It is plain and simple: the U.S. cannot win in Afghanistan until the Taliban is denied safe harbor. So the missile and gunship attacks into Pakistan must continue, not only to deny the Taliban their sense of impunity along the border, but also to make it clear to Pakistan that NATO will no longer tolerate an open border.

How much can change in only a few days.

Early Thursday, local time, there was an incident. As of yet, the reports are unclear as to what exactly transpired. It has been reported that NATO helicopters traveling inside Pakistani airspace while engaging militants firing mortars into Afghanistan were fired on by Pakistani forces in what has been termed “warning shots.” The NATO aircraft, reported to be American Apaches, returned fire, inflicting casualties on the Pakistani forces. While there has been no confirmation of a friendly fire incident by either the United States Government or by the NATO military command in Afghanistan, it has been obliquely substantiated by a NATO statement offering “sincere condolences to the Pakistani military and the families of those who were killed or injured.”

If these facts prove accurate, this is a most unfortunate event, with lessons to be learned by both sides. Clearly, better communication, leading to increased situational awareness as to the location of each other’s forces, might have served to avert this incident. Further, the wisdom of Pakistan firing warning shots towards powerful friendly aircraft that are engaged in battle with hostile ground forces is something to be carefully reconsidered. Beyond the specifics of this incident, however, are the rather serious consequences: Pakistan has shut down one of the two routes through its territory that NATO uses to provide overland supply to its forces in Afghanistan. It must be recalled that NATO is currently waging an offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan, and now is an awkward time to cope with a supply disruption.

The loss of the supply route through Pakistan’s territory is serious, but not fatal. NATO can continue to sustain its forces in Afghanistan, though at greater cost and inconvenience. More to the point, however, is the fact that this incident threatens to crack open the tense relationship between Islamabad and Washington. Pakistan is a nation with serious internal divisions, with the military, civilian government and intelligence service all pursuing their own, not always compatible, agendas. The result in a hydra-headed beast of a country that is both our ally and enemy.

The military and civilian government is generally considered to be pro-Western and willing to cooperate with the Allies (while there is plenty of evidence suggesting that the government is involved with the Taliban, it is fearful enough of the Allies military and economic might to remain at least nominally cooperative). The intelligence agency, the ISI, however, is considered to be thoroughly Islamist in its ideology and goals, and Pakistan is of course home to numerous terror cells and anti-government Islamist groups.

In short, the thought of dealing with Pakistan on a government level, as one might with Australia or Norway, is naïve. Loyalties shift so frequently in Pakistan, and so many competing interests are being balanced, that it is perhaps safest to simply consider them a deeply unstable, fundamentally conflicted country that it is best to feign friendship with rather than wage war upon. For now. Given the very real prospect that Pakistan might collapse into nuclear-armed Islamist anarchy, it is best to be prepared for any eventuality.

In the meantime, however, Pakistan and the West need each other, however uncomfortable both might find the arrangement. Expect to see a flurry of diplomatic activity over the next several days (indeed, it has already begun) and the border crossing to be reopened to NATO convoys soon. Pakistan simply cannot risk antagonizing NATO blatantly and publicly for too long, not when they are dealing with critical internal problems and are dependent upon Western monies and support to keep the Islamists — who’d hang them all — at bay.

That last issue is the one most worrisome. Having shut the border and announced that NATO’s drone and helicopter attacks into Pakistani territory are unacceptable, Pakistan might well have overplayed its hand. It cannot indefinitely hold back NATO’s convoys, and it has proven either unwilling or unable to police its borders to NATO’s satisfaction. In other words, the Pakistani government has painted itself into a corner. It will back down, and NATO will not stop its increasingly muscular air activity over Pakistan’s essentially lawless northern tribal regions. Such blatant weakness will discredit the government in the eyes of Pakistan’s proud military, and will serve as pitch-perfect propaganda fodder for the Islamists and Taliban militants already at work inside Pakistan. How can they not claim that the weak infidel government caved to Crusader pressure? In effect, that is exactly what will happen.

One can be justly critical of the Pakistani government. And its situation now perfectly reflects  the reality of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. In the end, its own bluster will serve as its undoing. It has already handed the worst elements of Pakistani society a tremendous propaganda victory, and yet, it has alienated its NATO allies upon whom its tenuous grip on power is dependent.

After announcing the closure of the border crossing, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters, “We will have to see whether we are allies or enemies” with NATO. The Minister should bear in mind that Pakistan already has internal enemies enough, and given his own country’s role in supporting the Taliban, the question he poses might be one his government would prefer NATO not to ponder too closely.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.