America’s relationship with Pakistan, never a simple one, seems to have taken a turn for the worse after the US bombardment of Pakistani forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border on Saturday morning.
The incident in the Baizai area of Pakistan’s Mohmand region prompted Pakistan to close its borders to NATO convoys supplying troops in Afghanistan, and the US military’s chairman of the joint chiefs of staff called Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani to express “regret,” stopping short of actually apologizing for the incident until an investigation could be carried out.
In addition to getting the facts of what occurred out there on the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border, there is a bigger story about the strange strategic partnership that has existed since Sept. 11, 2001.
Many US policy makers and commanders complain that Pakistan is, at best, a fickle friend in the fight against Islamist terror groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and an alphabet soup of Pakistani militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Hizb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (HIG). Where Washington expects Pakistani commanders to cooperate in shutting down these groups, there appear frequent signs that such groups are not only tolerated by Pakistan but encouraged to carry out attacks against the Afghan government.
From a Pakistani point of view, the Americans have used the excuse of "the war on terror" to expand its military footprint around the world, and to carry out military attacks unilaterally, even without the consent of a host nation. Even liberal Pakistanis with no sympathy for the radical ideas of a global jihad complain that American military actions tend to strengthen the hand of jihadists, and taint those secularists who would prefer that Islamists keep their influence out of politics.
The bombardment of the Pakistani military post, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, will only harden Pakistani hearts against the US.
But what exactly happened in Baizai?
The Washington Post’s Karen de Young and Joshua Partlow have by far the best piece, reporting that an Afghan special forces unit, working together with US Special Operations soldiers, had been conducting a nighttime raid on a suspected Taliban insurgent base when they came under cross border fire. The Afghan-US units called in air support, and the US bombs apparently hit the Pakistani border post.
Was Pakistan alerted that the Afghan-US raid would occur that night? Some US sources say yes, but Pakistan says no.
This quote from an unnamed US official indicates that there is still a lot of dust left to settle.
“Our side says they don’t know the facts,” said a second U.S. official, who also declined to discuss the matter on the record. “The facts are undoubtedly that somebody messed up on both sides.”
The London newspaper, the Telegraph, does a fine job piece together the detritus of the US-Pakistani relationship. Rob Crilly from Islamabad, Ben Farmer in Kabul, and Chris Irvine quote US Gen. Dempsey saying the US relationship with Pakistan was “the worst it’s ever been.”
The mainstream Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn finds solace in the outrage of Pakistan's close ally, China. In a wire-service story from Agence-France Presse, Dawn readers today learned that, “The United States and Nato have violated international law and international norms." It goes on to say that “this shows… that at crucial moments, the United States will not show the slightest hesitation to violate the sovereignty of another nation to ensure its ‘absolute security.’ ”
Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s protests are met with a bit more skepticism from Pakistan’s own neighbors. Kapil Komireddi, an Indian freelance journalist who specializes in foreign affairs, writes in today’s Foreign Policy magazine that the NATO air raid, while unfortunate, is just a small example of the kind of friendly fire that US and Afghan army soldiers have suffered at the hand of Pakistan’s military and its network of militant groups.
Pakistan has every reason to feel angry. But after a suitable period of mourning, shouldn't the United States, in the interests of fairness if nothing else, ask the Pakistani army if it plans ever to apologize for -- or, at bare minimum, acknowledge -- its role in the deaths of hundreds of coalition forces and many more Afghan civilians?
The New York Times, which covers the controversy with an editorial that calls for an investigation, did not have a news piece about the US-Pakistani imbroglio at the time of this column’s writing, but it carried a fascinating piece from the Afghan border region that gives food for thought. The Times’ Ray Rivera, together with Sharifullah Sahak and Eric Schmitt, write about how the Pakistan-based Haqqani militant network has begun a series of targeted killings against suspected informants inside Afghanistan, in a bid to weaken the Kabul government’s hold in the countryside.
According to Rivera and company, the Haqqani network seems to have carried out 250 assassinations and public executions, some of them in broad daylight. What makes the “death squads” so troubling is that they end up extending the territory of militant groups, even in areas where NATO and Afghan military units patrol regularly.
The Americans have geared their offensive around bloodying the insurgents as they enter Afghanistan. But the new wave of assassinations shows that, even as NATO portrays the insurgents as a weakening force, the Haqqanis can still assert their influence, not only with headline-grabbing bombings but also through intimidation and by controlling perceptions.
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