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NATO attack on Pakistani border post: what it means November 28, 2011

Posted by sandygordon in : Afghanistan, Gordon, Sandy, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon

The raw facts are known. A long-standing Pakistani military base just within  the northern border of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) was attacked by helicopters and possibly fixed-wing NATO aircraft on 26 November and at least 25 Pakistani officers and men killed. Since then, Pakistan has reacted by “indefinitely” closing border traffic for NATO goods from Pakistan into Afghanistan and giving the US 15 days to vacate its UAV base at Shamsi.

What is less well known is what prompted the NATO night attack. NATO is investigating. But it is possible that firing came from the base in support of a Taliban training facility, which was being concurrently attacked by US special forces. Or it may simply have been the result of a mix-up – all too easy in night fighting in the complex tribal area.

Irrespective of the source of the conflict, the Pakistani civilian authorities will now be under enormous pressure to ‘maintain the rage’ against the US.  It is clear now that former Ambassador to Washington Hussain Haqqani was virtually forced from office not just because of the ‘memogate’ incident but because of his long-standing antipathy to the military. Military-civilian relations are at a new low, if that were possible. In these circumstances, the civilian authorities will be working hard to keep some semblance of popular support, and this will mean beating the almost dead horse of the US relationship for all they are worth.

The US has put a brave face on previous closures of the border to supplies. Senior US officials claim that only 40 per cent of US supplies now come through Pakistan. But these would be key heavy supplies like fuel. Alternative routes for heavy supplies, mainly through the the northern route, are long, costly to maintain and insecure. Alternative routes and existing stockpiles would probably not prove adequate for a long-term presence in Afghanistan, but may meet the needs of the currently scheduled US draw-down, which will see only a rump US force of about 20,000 by the end of 2014.  Previous closures have been relatively short-lived, with Pakistan relenting after a public show of force. And according to some reports, Shamsi is already closed in any case. But the bigger question is: what will this do to the peace process and long-term prospects for peace in Afghanistan?

Even before the US raid that killed bin Laden on 2 May, we were reporting that Hilary Clinton was ‘reading the riot act’ to Pakistan because of the reluctance of Islamabad to stem cross-border activities into Afghanistan. In a report just after the killing of bin Laden, we assessed that despite the burden the raid placed on the US-Pakistan relationship, Washington would try to persist with its wayward ally at least till the draw-down date, but the relationship would probably not long survive that event. Since then, Afghanistan and its allies on the one hand and Pakistan on the other have been conducting what amounts to a low-level war across the borders at the north of Khyber Pakhtunkwa province. In that region, Afghanistan has been harbouring elements of the Pakistan Taliban as a cat’s paw to use should cross-border raids from Pakistan become too severe.

Implications

Pakistan’s strategy hitherto has been ‘to have its cake and eat it too’. This means that while the Pakistani military (who, after all, are the main players of relevance in Pakistan on these matters) have kept cross-border activity within limits, proffered some assistance in intelligence to NATO and hosted the drones, they have preserved their post-NATO option in Afghanistan by harbouring the Afghan Taliban and other groups such as the Haqqani network. This has involved a delicate balance.

Were Pakistan to completely fall out with NATO on a long-term basis – now a distinct possibility – the mitigating factors arising from this balance would no longer apply and the cross-border actors would not only be able to act unrestrained, but also probably be more actively supported by the Pakistani authorities. If this were to happen, the low-level, cross-border activities now in train would quickly escalate.

Prospects for a ‘regional’ solution in Afghanistan, which have always hinged on Pakistan agreeing to settle for a more ‘neutral’ Afghanistan in respect of the nature of the regime in Kabul than that which they had won under the Taliban (1996-2001), would be shattered.  Pakistan’s decision to boycott  the important conference on Afghanistan’s future scheduled for 5 December in Bonn is a serious blow to the peace process. Failure of the peace process would mean that prospects of a dignified exit for the US would evaporate. What the US  would be leaving would be a more overt Afghan civil war, one in which Pakistan was more forthrightly involved in assisting the Taliban. And meanwhile, Pakistan would become even more dependent on China than it is already.

But even this highly negative scenario would, in our view, be insufficient to cause Washington to delay its scheduled departure.  As we said following the bin Laden raid, with bin Laden dead, the US has now assessed that the main game has shifted to Asia and that it is simply providing security in South West Asia and the Middle East for others, such as China, to ‘free ride’.

All in all, things look bleak for an Afghanistan already shattered by 30 years of war and external interference.

UPDATE: Since the above report was written, an interesting report by the analytical group STRATFOR of 29 November has pointed out that the Russians have now threatened to close the northern route because of installation of proposed US anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe.  STRATFOR notes that although this threatened closure may not eventuate, the mere threat of having both land routes closed  should give Washington pause for thought given there are 140 thousand NATO troops to me maintained in Afghanistan.

 

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