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PORTSIDE  December 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE December 2011, Week 1

Subject:

Pakistan: Anatomy of a Crisis

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Date:

Sat, 3 Dec 2011 12:39:55 -0500

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Dispatches from the Edge

By Conn Hallinan

December 2, 2011

Pakistan: Anatomy Of A Crisis

In the aftermath of the Nov. 26 NATO attack on two
border posts that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the
question being asked is whether the assault was a  "fog
of war" incident or a calculated hit aimed at
torpedoing peace talks in Afghanistan? Given that the
incident has plunged relations between Washington and
Islamabad to a new low at a critical juncture in the
10-year war, the answer is vitally important

According to NATO, U.S. and Afghan troops came under
fire from the Pakistani side of the border and
retaliated in self-defense. American officials have
suggested that the Taliban engineered the incident in
order to poison U.S.-Pakistani relations. But there are
some facts suggesting that the encounter may have been
more than a "friendly fire" encounter brought on by a
clever foe, an ill-defined border, and the normal chaos
of the battlefield.

Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Samiullah Rahmani
denies they were even in the area-and the insurgent
group is never shy about taking credit for military
engagements (of course, if deception was involved that
is what the Taliban would say). However, this
particular region is one that the Pakistani army has
occupied for several years and is considered fairly
"cleansed" of insurgents.

The incident was not the case of a drone attack or
bombing gone awry, a common enough event. For all the
talk of "precision weapons" and "surgical strikes,"
drones have inflicted hundreds of civilian deaths and
500 lb bombs have very little in common with operating
rooms. Instead, the NATO instruments were Apache attack
helicopters and, according to Associated Press, an
A-130 gunship. In short, the assault was led by live
pilots presumingly indentifying targets to their
superiors.

Those targets were two border forts, architecture that
has never been associated with the Taliban. It is true
the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is porous
and not always clearly defined, but the Afghan
insurgents don't build concrete posts. A "fort" is duck
soup for a drone or a fighter-bomber, which is why the
Taliban favor caves and hidden bunkers.

Naturally enough, both sides disagree on what happened.
The Americans say they took fire from the Pakistani
border, engaged in a three-hour running fight, and
called in the choppers at the end of the battle.

But, according to the Pakistanis, there was no fire
from their side of the border, and helicopters started
the battle, which went on for a little less than two
hours. Pakistan also says there were two Apache
attacks. The first struck outpost Volcano, and when the
fort's nearby companion, outpost Boulder, fired on the
helicopters, it also came under assault. Pakistan
claims that its military contacted NATO to warn them
they were attacking Pakistani troops, but the firing
continued. The helicopters finally withdrew, only to
reappear and renew the attack when the Pakistanis tried
to reinforce the besieged forts.

Might it have been a matter of bad intelligence?

According to the Pakistanis, Islamabad has been careful
to identify its posts to NATO in order to avoid
incidents exactly like this. Pakistan Gen. Ashfaq
Nadeem said, "it is not possible" that the "NATO forces
did not know of the location of the Pakistani posts."
Pakistan Gen. Ashram Nader called the attack a
"deliberate act of aggression."

Could it have been "deliberate"? Mistakes happen in
war, but the timing of this engagement is deeply
suspicious.

It comes at a delicate moment, when some 50 countries
were preparing to gather in Bonn, Germany for talks
aimed at a settling the Afghan War. Central to that
meeting is Pakistan, the only country in the region
with extensive contacts among the various insurgent
groups. If the U.S. plans to really withdraw troops by
2014, it will need close cooperation with Pakistan.

"This could be a watershed in Pakistan's relations with
the U.S.," Islamabad's high commissioner to Britain,
Wajid Shamsul Hasan, told the Guardian (UK). "It could
wreck the time table for the American troop
withdrawal."

Pakistan has now withdrawn from the Bonn talks, and
relations between Washington and Islamabad are as bad
as they have ever been. The Pakistanis have shut down
two major land routes into Afghanistan, routes over
which some 50 percent of supplies for the war move.
Islamabad has also demanded that the CIA close down its
drone base at Shamsi in Pakistan's Balochistan
Province.

Who would benefit from all this fallout?

It is no secret that many in the U.S. military are
unhappy about the prospect of negotiations with the
Taliban, in particular the organization's most lethal
ally, the Haqqani Group. There is an unspoken but
generally acknowledged split between the Defense
Department and the State Department, with the former
wanting to pound the insurgents before sitting down to
talk, while the latter is not sure that tactic will
work. Could someone on the uniformed side of the
division have decided to derail, or at least damage,
the Bonn meeting?

It is also no secret that not everyone in Afghanistan
wants peace, particularly if it involves a settlement
with the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, made up of
mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, want nothing to do with the
Pashtun-based Taliban that is mainly grouped in the
south and east, and in the tribal regions of Pakistan.
The Afghan Army is mostly Tajik, who not only make up
the bulk of the soldiers, but 70 percent of the command
staff. President Hamid Karzi is a Pashtun, but he is
largely window dressing in the Northern Alliance-
dominated Kabul government.

There are broader regional issues at stake as well.

It was no surprise that China immediately came to
Pakistan's defense, with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang
Jiechu expressing "deep shock and strong concern" over
the incident. China is not happy about the NATO
deployment in Afghanistan and less so about the
possibility of permanent U.S. bases in that country. At
a Nov. 2 meeting in Istanbul, China, along with
Pakistan, Iran and Russia, opposed a long-term American
deployment in the area.

Iran is worried about the threat of U.S. military power
on its border, Islamabad is concerned that prolonging
the war will further destabilize Pakistan, and Beijing
and Moscow are suspicious that the Americans have their
sights set on Central Asia gas and oil resources. Both
Russia and China rely on Central Asia hydrocarbons, the
former for export to Europe, and the latter to run its
burgeoning industries.

China is also anxious about the Obama administration's
recent strategic shift toward Asia. The U.S. has openly
intervened in disputes between China and its Southeast
Asian neighbors in the South China Sea, and recently
signed an agreement to deploy 2,500 Marines in
Australia. Washington has also tightened its ties with
Indonesia and warmed up to Myanmar. To China, all this
looks like a campaign to surround Beijing with U.S.
allies and to keep its finger on the Chinese energy
jugular vein. Some 80 percent of China's oil moves
through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

A key ingredient in any formula to offset Beijing's
growing power and influence in Asia is the role of
India. New Delhi has traditionally been neutral in
foreign policy, but, starting with the Bush
administration, it has grown increasingly close to
Washington. China and India have a prickly relationship
dating back to the 1962 border war between the two
countries and China's support for India's traditional
enemy, Pakistan. China claims on part of India's border
area have not improved matters.

India would also like a Taliban-free government in
Kabul, and anything that discomforts Islamabad is just
fine with New Delhi. There are elements in the American
military and diplomatic community that would like to
see Washington dump its alliance with Pakistan and pull
India into a closer relationship. A fair number of
Indians feel the same way.

So far, the White House has refused to apologize,
instead leaking a story that showing any softness vis-
à-vis Pakistan during an election year is impossible.

In the end, the border fight may turn out to be an
accident, although we are unlikely to know that for
certain. Military investigations are not known for
accuracy, and much of what happened will remain
classified.

But with all these crosscurrents coming together in the
night skies over Pakistan, maybe somebody saw an
opportunity and took it. In a sense, it is irrelevant
whether the attack was deliberate or dumb: the
consequences are going to be with us for a long time,
and the ripples are likely to spread from a rocky
hillside in Pakistan to the far edges of the Indian
Ocean and beyond. 
_________________

Conn Hallinan can be read at
dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and
middleempireseries.wordpress.com

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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