U.S. officials stress their regret without admitting guilt. They claim to know what’s best for Pakistan without fully understanding the country’s history or people. They ask for patience when Washington and Islamabad have none for each other. They demand impartiality while attempting to manipulate the crime scene.
"No one at this point has the complete narrative on what happened," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters inquiring into NATO's deadly weekend raid in Pakistan. "I think, it is premature to articulate the facts of this incident... It is important to review all the data available, to talk to the personnel involved and let the investigation unfold."
Never too early to leak though.
Shadows on Salala Ridge
Starting down relentless hostility for air-raiding Salala ridge, a mushrooming strike that left at least 24 Pakistani soldiers dead, U.S. officials quickly found themselves accused of freezing in the emergency headlights. The Obama administration remains hedged around “sorrow” and "sympathy" as diplomats feverishly work Pakistan’s back-channels, leaving a void in responsibility and outreach. The administration’s public response appears to be centered on shaping the event’s narrative in order to reduce future culpability. Rather than an act of negligence, aggression or chaos, Taliban militants attacked a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol in order to provoke return fire against Pakistan’s checkpoints.
Various reports confirmed, “U.S. officials are working on the assumption the Taliban chose the location for the first attack to create confusion and draw U.S. and Pakistani forces into firing on each other.”
According to preliminary leaks of NATO’s investigation, U.S. and Afghan personnel came under initial fire in Afghanistan’s hotly contested Kunar province shortly after midnight. The patrol claims to have radioed Pakistani officials while tracking the Taliban unit across the mountainous border, and was told that no friendly troops were operating in the area. U.S. and Afghan commanders eventually spotted what they believed to be a militant camp “with heavy weapons mounted on tripods,” and called in air support from Apache helicopters, war planes and an AC-130 gunship.
"It was a situation where insurgent forces butted right up against a Pakistani border post and used that as a firing position,” one U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. “When we fired back, we hit Pakistani security forces.”
Media reports go so far as to question “whether Pakistani forces at the border outpost were somehow complicit in initially firing on the Afghan-U.S. patrol.” Another Western official in Kabul openly declared, "They [U.S. troops] were fired on from a Pakistani army base. It was a defensive action."
Islamabad, on the other hand, initially denied being contacted before the attack occurred; many of the 50 troops stationed on Salala were sleeping when U.S. rounds began to drop. Instead, Pakistani officials reported hearing “suspicious activity” shortly after midnight, around the same time that U.S. and Afghan forces reported contact with Taliban fighters. One Pakistani unit fired flares and, after spotting movement near the camp, opened fire with small arms. The post then came under assault from U.S. aircraft, and a Pakistani liaison soon informed U.S. officials at Forward Operating Base Joyce.
The attack lasted for nearly an hour before NATO communicated its error to Pakistani officials, yet the aircraft continued their fire afterward. Soldiers from the second Pakistani post in question then responded in defense, leading U.S. forces to bomb their position as well.
This deadly event would hit the propaganda jackpot if Taliban leadership did orchestrate a cross-boarder incident and the ensuing political meltdown. Such a plot would be meticulously planned, in line with the Taliban’s high-profile propaganda campaign, but the simplicity of provoking friendly fire cannot be lost either. Despite implementing safeguards to prevent the very border chaos now engulfing their relations, Washington and Islamabad have spent years increasing the Durand Line’s tension to the breaking point. Taliban fighters only need to spark two powder-kegs.
Political Cost of a Dozen Insurgents
With the systematic collapse of everything U.S. - from supply lines to political lines - the Taliban’s alleged plot could yield a higher impact than the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai or Tajik figurehead Burhanuddin Rabbani. Amid speculation over the fate of Shamsi air field, General Martin Dempsey suggested that U.S. personnel were, in fact, still posted at the isolated strip in Pakistan's Balochistan province. America’s new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) told Britain’s ITV News, “It's a serious blow in the sense that the Pakistani government felt that they needed to deny us the use of a base that we've been using for many years. And so it's serious in that regard. It's not debilitating militarily."
CIA and Special Forces have spent years building up a drone network inside Afghanistan.
Needing to send a louder message than Shamsi’s irrelevant closure, Islamabad subsequently announced its intention to boycott next week’s conference in Bonn, Germany. Arranged in November 2010 after NATO’s Lisbon summit, Bonn is the latest international goalpost to advance the coalition’s phased withdrawal towards 2014. The conference will discuss Afghanistan’s security transfers and international engagement in general, but Taliban reconciliation was dropped from the agenda after Rabbani’s assassination in September. Pakistan’s absence in this particular topic is relatively insignificant given that Washington demands the Taliban’s unconditional surrender. Disconnecting from Afghanistan's wider scheme will yield real damage, as Dempsey anticipates.
The Washington Post reports, “Administration officials are leaving the door open for Pakistan to reverse course and commit to the Bonn conference, but are more perturbed by the idea of a substantial change in Pakistani policy toward Afghanistan. They don’t know if the Bonn decision reflects merely another slap at the United States, or if it reflects a broader move away from the U.S. strategy for withdrawing from Afghanistan.”
The combination of Islamabad’s hard-line reaction and its placement within the historic downtrend in U.S.-Pakistani relations has solidified the expectation that a fundamental shift is near. Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani declared that business won’t return to normal as China flexed its muscle behind him, while Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said the country had reached a turning point in its foreign policy. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV), “We don’t want any aid or assistance, but we want to live with dignity and honor.”
Islamabad’s rhetoric is often oversimplified as “playing to the masses,” but U.S. officials would respond in similar kind. Pakistani officials must attempt to uphold the country’s sovereignty regardless of their hollow fury, otherwise the risk of instability further increases. Washington has grown too comfortable with Pakistan’s status quo - with the realization that U.S. troops don’t need public support in the mid-term. This arrangement is inherently unstable, prone to upheaval, and thus dangerous to the region.
The Taliban theory still doesn’t explain how two designated outposts were confused for a militant camp, or why the air raid continued for so long. U.S. officials claim that Taliban fighters have attempted to provoke friendly fire on numerous occasions, making Washington’s excuse all the more inexcusable. Mistaken identities, judgement lapses and communication malfunctions only appear to explain so much; if the Taliban did set a trap, U.S. and Afghan forces fell head over heels into a dark pit. A breakdown in military command presents another troubling scenario, and Pakistani officials assert that NATO’s attack sent a deliberate message to show “who’s boss” on the border.
True or false, this mindset is influencing Pakistani policymakers beyond an immediate need to placate the populace. At the least, they cannot tolerate U.S. forces calling in air-strikes without being able to stop them.
“Such raids have also been conducted in the past,” said Major General Athar Abbas, spokesman for Pakistan’s military. “Such attacks are unacceptable.”
Surrendering Hearts and Minds
Nor does mistaken identity explain America’s inadequate public diplomacy. NATO’s raid highlights how clueless U.S. officials remain of Pakistan’s internal dynamics, in terms of responding to a political crisis and directly addressing Pakistan’s people. The Obama administration refuses to apologize during NATO’s investigation while shielding itself with the Taliban, a political maneuver that isn’t fooling Islamabad. Abbas rejected the assertion that Pakistani troops initiated fire towards the border - disregarding the Obama administration’s apology in the process - and Islamabad immediately refuted U.S. claims that Pakistani officials approved the air-raid. They counter-argue that U.S. personnel gave them the wrong coordinates, and denied emerging reports that the mountain posts were temporary camps.
NATO’s investigation won’t be released until December 23rd, too long for Pakistanis to approve of but not long enough for them to forget. Major General Ishfaq Nadeem, Director General Military Operations (DG MO), speaks for many Pakistanis when he expects the investigation to "come to nothing."
U.S. officials also continue to frame their concerns around Afghanistan’s stability and “national security interests,” rather than relate to Pakistan’s human element. President Barack Obama has spoken through a press secretary instead of attempting a direct connection with Pakistan's people. Few officials forget to remind their audience that U.S. policy in Afghanistan remains “on track,” hardening Islamabad’s unease over America’s regional strategy. Pakistanis want Western troops out of the region in the near future and they don’t view America's negotiating style as an exit. Islamabad remains obstructive - the Taliban’s leadership feels no differently - because Washington hopes to approve a military presence after 2014.
Islamabad and Washington essentially feel that Afghanistan is each other's fault. This dynamic remains the same before and after NATO’s deadly raid, and too many long-standing doubts exist to alter the status quo. Pakistan's military is willing to sacrifice numerous proxies and coordinate drone strikes, but not in total subservience to foreign powers.
The Obama administration's use of a militant shield ultimately feeds into the Taliban's own narrative. If true, the plot represents the group’s latest high-profile attack in a psychological campaign that NATO officials have largely dismissed. One Taliban commander in Kunar, Abu Hamza, rejected accusations of involvement, saying his troops enjoy enough freedom to stay inside Afghanistan. Propaganda doesn’t restore clarity to propaganda, but the Taliban’s mere specter could be responsible for Salala’s mix up.
One thing is certain: the insurgency’s leadership is enjoying an even bigger laugh if they didn’t intend to spark an international crisis.