The Endless Pakistan Tragedy

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The Endless Pakistan Tragedy

The accidental killing of 24 Pakistani troops by NATO aircraft has prompted an angry response from Pakistan – and further dimmed any prospect of mutual trust.

Yesterday’s tragic friendly fire incident along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and today’s response, are eerily familiar to any observer of Afghan-Pakistan-United States ties over the past decade.

NATO aircraft “highly likely” – in the words of an alliance spokesperson – killed 24 Pakistani troops and wounded 13 others at two posts located about 1,000 feet apart on a mountain in the Mohmand region of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pakistani militants based in this mountainous northwest frontier use the FATA as a safe haven for conducting cross-border guerrilla and terrorist attacks in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan itself.

In response to the pre-dawn attack, which found most of the garrison still asleep, Pakistani authorities have again blocked vital supply routes for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The government also said it would review all diplomatic, military and intelligence cooperation with ISAF forces.

Pakistani authorities also repeated their demand that the Pentagon leave the Shamsi Air Base in Balochistan Province used to service U.S. drones that launch missiles at al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal region. This time they included a 15-day deadline for the withdrawal.

A spokesman for NATO forces, Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, said Afghan and ISAF troops were operating in the border area of eastern Afghanistan when “a tactical situation” prompted them to call in airstrikes in support that “highly likely” caused Pakistani casualties.

Ironically, the airstrike came one day after a meeting between Gen. John Allen, in charge of ISAF, and Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Islamabad to review border operations. According to a Pakistani military statement, the two discussed “coordination, communication and procedures…aimed at enhancing border control on both sides.”

This is only the latest crisis to befall the border region during the last decade. Relations among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States have been extraordinarily troubled for most of the past ten years. Historical conflicts, different priorities, and personal animosities have combined to weaken the collective ability of the three countries to repress Islamist extremists operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

The United States has pursued several initiatives to reduce tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and to encourage both governments to concentrate their attention on countering the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists operating inside their territories. Despite these efforts, the border region remains a major source of tension in their trilateral relationship.

Most recently, the intensified fighting in Afghanistan, due in part to increase cross-border support from Pakistan, has prompted ISAF to adopt a more aggressive policy along the frontier. Hence, yesterday’s incident was bound to happen someday.

For some time, the U.S. helicopters assigned to ISAF have been engaging in a more aggressive campaign to defend Afghan border outposts. Taliban and Haqqani network guerrillas sally forth from their sanctuaries in Pakistan and attack Afghan army outposts in eastern Afghanistan, then flee back across the border with NATO aircrews in hot pursuit. ISAF commanders had been justifying the border air strikes by citing the failure of the Pakistani Army to occupy and suppress the guerrilla and terrorist bases in the tribal regions, especially in North Waziristan.

The White House and the Pentagon have become increasingly frustrated by the presence of the insurgent sanctuaries on Pakistani territory and the failure of the Pakistani government to establish control there. The Obama administration has authorized a more proactive air campaign against the Pakistani-based militants. While still declining to send U.S. ground forces across the border into Pakistan, the Pentagon has increased the use of both manned helicopter attacks along the border and unmanned aerial vehicle strikes for striking targets deeper inside Pakistani territory.

A similar incident happened in September 2010, when U.S. helicopters under ISAF attacked a Pakistan border post and killed two members of the Frontier Corps who had been firing warning shots at them to keep away from the border.

Although this was the first friendly fire incident in 2011, this year has been a terrible year in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, beginning with the Raymond Davis affair. Davis was a CIA contractor working under the cover of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad who shot two Pakistani men in January, claiming they meant to rob him. The affair highlighted the complex relationship between the two intelligence agencies, whose members distrust one another even as they work together in joint operations.


Many Pakistanis complain the incident exposed problems inherent in the large U.S. intelligence presence in their country.During his April 2011 visit to Washington, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, asked the CIA to withdraw intelligence operatives from Pakistan and curtail its unpopular drone strikes. Mullen made clear that the UAV operations in Pakistan would continue, describing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as the “epicenter of terrorism in the world.” 

The White House then ordered the May 2 attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound in central Pakistan without apparently seeking Pakistani permission or notifying Pakistani authorities in advance. In response, on May 14, a joint session of both houses of Pakistan’s parliament unanimously enacted a resolution to defend Pakistan’s sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity against U.S. military actions.

Geography and other factors force Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States to collaborate despite their differences over the border region. But an urgent task is clearly to clarify the rules of engagement under the new conditions of a departing Western military presence, a resurgent Taliban, and a Pakistani government and military frustrated with the United States and Afghanistan, but still open to some cooperation.

When President Asif Ali Zardari met Marc Grossman, the new U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who replaced Richard Holbrooke, he said they needed “clear terms of engagement” in the battle against Islamist militants to avoid further damaging bilateral security ties. Zardari's office subsequently explained that, “In the absence of well-defined and documented terms of engagement, wrong plugs may be pulled at the wrong times by any side that could undermine the bilateral relations.” The statement added that, “The president said that terms of engagement should be clearly defined and specified so that any dispute could be settled amicably.”

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to reconcile to these differing priorities. Afghan-Pakistan-U.S. border tensions are likely to recur—and worsen—as NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan. With official Afghan and U.S. backing, ISAF will increase its pressure on Pakistani authorities to prevent the Taliban from exploiting the vacuum, and will step up its attacks along the border, invariably causing more friendly-fire incidents.

Pakistani leaders will have no choice but to complain about the attacks when they occur on Pakistani territory. They will also want to hedge their bets against the Taliban’s regaining control of some, if not all, of Afghanistan, by maintaining operational ties with the group, despite Afghan and U.S. complaints.

Rebuilding trust between the three countries will require many years, and possibly multiple generations, to achieve. In the meantime, the current status quo of wary cooperation and mutual mistrust is likely to continue.