The air strike by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at the Pakistani military post at Salala in the Mohmand Agency on the Afghan-Pakistan border Friday night is destined to become a milestone in the chronicle of the Afghan war.
Within hours of the incident, Pakistan’s relations with the US began nose-diving and it continues to plunge. NATO breached the ”red line”.
What is absolutely stunning about the statement issued by Pakistan’s Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DDC), which met Saturday at Islamabad under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani is that it did not bother to call for an inquiry by the US or NATO into the air strike that resulted in the death of 28 Pakistani soldiers.
Exactly what happened in the fateful night of Friday – whether the NATO blundered into a mindless retaliatory (or pre-emptive) act or ventured into a calculated act of high provocation – will remain a mystery. Maybe it is no more important to know, since blood has been drawn and innocence lost, which now becomes the central point.
At any rate, the DDC simply proceeded on the basis that this was a calculated air strike – and by no means an accidental occurrence. Again, the DDC statement implies that in the Pakistan military’s estimation, the NATO attack emanated from a US decision. Pakistan lodged a strong protest at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels but that was more for purpose of ‘record’, while the “operative” part is directed at Washington.
The GHQ in Rawalpindi would have made the assessment within hours of the Salala incident that the US is directly culpable. The GHQ obviously advised the DDC accordingly and recommended the range of measures Pakistan should take by way of what Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani publicly called an “effective response.”
The DDC took the following decisions: a) to close NATO’s transit routes through Pakistani territory with immediate effect; b) to ask the US to vacate Shamsi airbase within 15 days; c) to “revisit and undertake a complete review” of all “programs, activities and cooperative arrangements” with US, NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), including in “diplomatic, political and intelligence” areas; d) to announce shortly a whole range of further measures apropos Pakistan’s future cooperation with US, NATO and ISAF.
No more doublespeak
The response stops short of declaring the termination of Pakistan’s participation in the US-led war in Afghanistan (which, incidentally, is the demand by Pakistani politician Imran Khan who is considered to be close to the Pakistani military circles). In essence, however, Pakistan is within inches of doing that.
The closure of the US-NATO transit routes through Pakistan territory may not immediately affect the coalition forces in Afghanistan, as it has built up reserve stocks that could last several weeks. But the depletion of the reserves would cause anxiety if the Pakistani embargo is prolonged, which cannot be ruled out.
Therefore, the Pakistani move is going to affect the NATO operations in Afghanistan, since around half the supplies for US-NATO troops still go via Pakistan. An alternative for the US and NATO will be to rely more on the transit routes of the Northern Distribution Network [NDN]. But the US and NATO’s dependence on the NDN always carried a political price tag – Russia’s cooperation.
Moscow is agitated about the US regional policies. The NATO intervention in Libya caused friction, which deepened the Russian angst over the US’s perceived lack of seriousness to regard it as equal partner and its cherry-picking or “selective partnership”.
Then, there are other specific issues that agitate Moscow: US’s push for “regime change” in Syria, the US and NATO appearance in the Black Sea region, continued deployment of US missile defense system, and the push for US military bases in Afghanistan. In addition, Moscow has already begun circling wagons over the US “New Silk Road” initiative and its thrust into Central Asia.
The future of the US-Russia reset remains uncertain. Washington barely disguises its visceral dislike of the prospect of Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin following the presidential election in March next year. Short of bravado, the US and NATO should not brag that they have the NDN option up their sleeve in lieu of the Pakistani transit routes. The Pakistani military knows this, too.
Equally, the closure of the Shamsi airbase can hurt the US drone operations. Pakistan has so far turned a blind eye to the drone attacks, even conniving with them. Shamsi, despite the US’s insistence that drone operations were conducted from bases in Afghanistan, surely had a significant role in terms of intelligence back-up and logistical support.
By demanding that the US vacate Shamsi, Pakistan is possibly shifting its stance on the drone attacks; its doublespeak may be ending. Pakistan is ”strengthening” its air defense on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Future US drone operations may have to be conducted factoring in the possibility that Pakistan might regard them as violations of its air space. The US is on slippery ground under international law and the United Nations Charter.
A Persian response
The big issue is how Pakistan proposes to continue with its cooperation with the US-NATO operations. Public opinion is leaning heavily toward dissociating with the US-led war. The government’s announcement on the course of relations with the US/NATO/ISAF can be expected as early as next week. The future of the war hangs by a thread.
Unlike during previous phases of US-Pakistan tensions Washington lacks a “Pakistan hand” to constructively engage Islamabad. The late Richard Holbrooke, former special AfPak envoy, has become distant memory and special representative Marc Grossman has not been able to step into his shoes.
Admiral Mike Mullen has retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is now a ‘burnt-out case’ embroiled in controversies with the Pakistani military. Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus isn’t terribly popular in Islamabad after his stint leading the US Central Command, while his predecessor as spy chief and now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta always remained a distant figure.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a charming politician, but certainly not cut out for the role of networking with the Pakistani generals at the operational level. She could perhaps offer a healing touch once the bleeding wound is cleansed of dirt, stitched up and bandaged. And US President Barack Obama, of course, never cared to establish personal chemistry with a Pakistani leader, as he would with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Now, who could do that in Washington? The horrible truth is – no one. It is a shocking state of affairs for a superpower with over 100,000 troops deployed out there in the tangled mountains in Pakistan’s vicinity. There has been a colossal breakdown of diplomacy at the political, military and intelligence level.
Washington trusted former Pakistani ambassador Hussein Haqqani almost as its own special envoy to Islamabad, but he has been summarily replaced under strange circumstances – probably, for the very same reason. At the end of the day, an intriguing question keeps popping up: Can it be that Pakistan is simply not interested anymore in dialoguing with the Obama administration?
The heart of the matter is that the Pakistani citadel has pulled back the bridges leading to it from across the surrounding crocodile-infested moat. This hunkering down is going to be Obama’s key problem. Pakistan is boycotting the Bonn Conference II on December 2. This hunkering down should worry the US more than any Pakistani military response to the NATO strike.
The US would know from the Iranian experience that it has no answer for the sort of strategic defiance that an unfriendly nation resolute in its will to resist can put up against an ‘enemy’ it genuinely considers ‘satanic’.
The Pakistani military leadership is traditionally cautious and it is not going to give a military response to the US’s provocation. (Indeed, the Taliban are always there to keep bleeding the US and NATO troops.)
Washington may have seriously erred if the intention 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. Things aren’t going to work that way. Pakistan is going to give a “Persian” response.
The regional situation works in Pakistan’s favor. The recent Istanbul conference (November 2) showed up Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran sharing a platform of opposition to the US bases in Afghanistan in the post-2014 period.
The Obama administration’s grandiose scheme to transform the 89-year period ahead as ‘America’s Pacific Century’ makes Pakistan a hugely important partner for China. At the very minimum, Russia has stakes in encouraging Pakistan’s strategic autonomy. So does Iran.
None of these major regional powers wants the deployment of the US missile defense system in the Hindu Kush and Pakistan is bent on exorcising the region of the military presence of the US and its allies. That is also the real meaning of Pakistan’s induction as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is on the cards.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.