Fallout From NATO Attack on Pakistani Border Posts Continues: Afghanistan At Center of Conflict

While a great deal of the attention on the effects of Saturday’s NATO attack on two (or three) Pakistani border posts that killed at least 24 Pakistani soldiers centers on US-Pakistan relations, the importance of these developments on relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan should not be overlooked. Most reports on the incident suggest that Afghan soldiers in the border region were responsible for calling in the air attack.  While NATO and Afghan accounts claim that the Afghan forces were under fire from the Pakistani border outposts, the Pakistani military insists that the attacks were unprovoked. It should be noted that an Afghan group of investigators had arrived in Islamabad on Thursday before the incident on Saturday. This group was in Pakistan to investigate Pakistani ties to the militant group that killed former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani on September 20 when he was starting peace talks with the Taliban.

The Attack

The Washington Post account of the attack has this key passage on the background situation:

The poorly patrolled and ill-marked border is the central sore point in Pakistan’s relations with both the United States and Afghanistan. American military officials say al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters live on the Pakistani side and cross the border to attack U.S. troops — with the knowledge of and help from Pakistani intelligence. Pakistan says the homegrown militants its army is fighting in the restive tribal areas can easily find refuge ineastern Afghanistan, which borders Mohmand, and that CIA drone strikes in the region inspire militants.

The Saturday airstrike came one day after [Commander of US forces General John] Allen met with [Pakistan’s Army head General Ashfaq] Kayani to discuss border security.

That Friday meeting between Allen and Kayani certainly makes the subsequent events on Saturday hard to understand. Only one day after discussing border security at the highest levels, we see a massive communications breakdown at a critical moment:

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a Pakistani military spokesman, stopped short of that characterization [describing the attack as a US offensive action], but he said the strike was “inexplicable.” In an interview, he said the two border posts are clearly marked and their locations are known to Afghan and coalition forces. No militant or military firing preceded the NATO assault, nor did coalition troops inform Pakistan that they were receiving fire from the Pakistani side, as is procedure, Abbas said.

Once the strike began, Abbas said, soldiers notified their commanders in the nearby city of Peshawar, who told officials at military headquarters in Rawalpindi, who then informed two trilateral border coordination centers located at the Torkham pass and the border of Pakistan’s North Waziristan region.

“But somehow it continued,” Abbas said of the firing. “Our side believes there is no possibility of confusion. The post location is not where a Taliban would take position.”

The Express Tribune carries more of Abbas’ remarks:

“There is no reason for the fire to be initiated from our area,” he said, adding that Mohmand Agency has been cleared of militancy and that the army has regained control of the area.

“We have cleared the area and lost 70 officers in the operation already. Now we have to face the brunt of Nato from the other side?”

/snip/

Abbas  told the Guardian that the firing lasted for over an hour, and that Isaf made “no attempt” to contact the Pakistani side.

“This was a visible, well-made post, on top of ridges, made of concrete. Militants don’t operate from mountaintops, from concrete structures.”

So if border security had just been discussed one day earlier by the highest ranking officers on both sides, how is it possible one side could fire on the other for over an hour, especially when the side receiving fire made an immediate report to the other side? And why would NATO think insurgent forces would be on a mountaintop, firing from established bases? NATO’s upcoming investigation has to answer these questions if they are to maintain any credibility with Pakistan.

Effect on Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations

From the BBC story on the Afghan delegation that arrived in Islamabad on Thursday:

Mr Rabbani had been leading Afghan efforts to negotiate with the Taliban and the Afghan government has said it believes forces in Pakistan were behind the suicide attack that killed him on 20 September.

Earlier this month Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to jointly investigate his murder in what was seen as a warming of relations between the two countries.

/snip/

Afghan officials say that they were finally granted visas to travel to Pakistan after a delay of nearly three months.

It is of course universally understood that an agreement with the Taliban is essential to achieving a stable Afghanistan after US troops leave. That is what makes the killing of Rabbani just as he stared negotiations so important and why it stands out to me that the border incident would flare up while the team investigating Rabbani’s death was in Pakistan. And it appears that this crisis has indeed derailed the process of developing an agreement with the Haqqani Network (and presumably the Taliban, as the Haqqani Network stated earlier that they would only participate in negotiations if the Taliban were included):

Pakistani officials also warned that the attack will have “huge implications” for the Afghan endgame.

When Secretary Clinton led a delegation last month to Islamabad, authorities in Pakistan had agreed with the US to convince certain insurgent groups, including the Haqqani network, to enter the meaningful talks for seeking a peaceful end in Afghanistan. “That process has now come to a halt,” said the official.

But not only is that peace process halted, there now is talk of outright hostilities breaking out between Pakistan and Afghanistan. From CNN:

Pakistan Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan said in a phone call to CNN that America will infringe on Pakistan’s sovereignty and continue operations on Pakistani soil in the coming days.

Ihsan said Pakistan must respond in kind to the NATO attacks, and he warned that the Pakistani Taliban will continue their jihad as long as Pakistan remains an ally of the United States.

In Kabul, meanwhile, a senior adviser to Afghan president Hamid Karzai said Afghanistan and Pakistan may be on a course toward military conflict.

Ashraf Ghani said the link between Pakistan and the assassination of a former Afghan president had united his country “against interference.”

It would appear that the US now is stuck with two key allies careening toward war with one another despite recent strong diplomatic efforts (which were also disrupted by the Husain Haqqani memogate scandal). Will the US have the courage to announce that financial and military aide to Afghanistan and Pakistan is dependent on their cooperation with one another and that steps taken by either side toward war would make the flow of assistance stop? That may be the only way to avoid a war between Pakistan and Afghanistan once the US leaves.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
15 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    And in related news, it appears China is determined to use the Graveyard of Empires against us the same way we used it against Russia.

    Islamabad considers Beijing to be its closest ally and an alternative partner to Washington and the west. China and Pakistan both oppose US plans to have bases in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 date for ending the coalition’s combat operations there.

    “China is deeply shocked by these events, and expresses strong concern for the victims and profound condolences to Pakistan,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said. “China believes that Pakistan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected and the incident should be thoroughly investigated and be handled properly.”

  2. rugger9 says:

    The PRC is doing this quietly to ensure a free hand for Taiwan. And they have lots of our t-bills to hold over our heads to make us think twice about stopping them. One wonders what Shrub gave away in his engagement discussions where he couldn’t find the door.

    For Pakistan’s part in this dance, they need to understand that deals with the PRC government are very much subject to how the PRC government chooses to interpret the terms, we’ve seen it in how they behave on the WTO, etc.

  3. Mary says:

    I was just now getting caught up on your old er post, so thanks for this update. It is now sounding more and more like 2, if not 3, posts came under attack, doesn’t it? That also is also what is in the most recent Time piece. Time seems to pretty reliably get the CIA line out.

    It sounds like some of the stories were saying this was a joint afghan/NATO exercise and imply that it was the NATO forces that called in the strike. Is that greeting any more clear? over an hour of strikes on known and located bases and despite Pak reporting on the strikes would make the “oops” aspect harder to sell. So what’s the advantage to whom?

  4. MadDog says:

    I would note that in the majority of news reports I’ve read in the last couple of days, the anonymous NATO/ISAF sources state that the Afghans in the joint Afghan/US Special Operations attack force were responsible for calling in the close air support attack on the Pakistani posts (and you mention it yourself Jim).

    A couple of questions arise from that assignment of “responsibility”:

    1) The Afghans have no air force of their own (yet), so make no mistake about it but the close air support attack on the Pakistani posts was conducted by US air assets. Can anyone imagine that the US would allow the Afghans to direct close air support attacks by themselves by US air assets without some US oversight and approval on the ground?

    2) How likely is it that either or both US Special Operations forces working with their Afghan counterparts or the US close air support tasking chain could not read a map depicting where those Pakistani posts were located and that the attack coordinates were one and the same?

  5. rugger9 says:

    @MadDog: #5
    Given the already existing sensitivity in the area after several other drone strikes, it is clear to me that the chain of command made it “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer” that sloppy targeting in the region was going to mean a trip to the brig. So, in response to your observation and the fact that it went on for hours with the Afghan / ISAF reps in Pakistan at the time for talks, it’s clear to me that this was intentional.

    As Mary notes, however, it isn’t yet clear who profited from this, and since we can assume intentional activity, there had to be a plan to do this. Since I’m not in the intel loop for this, I’ll toss out ideas:

    1. It was a factional hit in Pakistan, probably against Haqqani assets [one way or another] or as payback for the OBL hit that also had a curious lack of interest from the Pakistani military.
    2. Afghan factions are conducting a private war with our air assets. The trouble with that to me is that when the USA leaves [and we will, leaving the Xe folks behind for the pipeline] there is no one left to stop the warlords. I don’t mind them expending ordnance on each other, but the villagers don’t need this.
    3. Pakistan created the situation to create outrage and a reason to close the passes, but it seems illogical to me to kill that many soldiers to make the point. Closing the passes means that supplies are restricted, and it may be that Pakistan has ideas on snipping off some territory, much easier to do if the USA is out and the Afghans can’t get military supplies.
    4. Even though he’s on record telling us to leave, Karzai figured out that as soon as we leave he’s fish food, and therefore had to come up with something so nasty that we’d be forced to stay and he won’t be seen as a flip flopper. Removal of Haqqanis would be a plus for him.

    Time to leave, since even with the program, we don’t know who the allies are. Pakistan’s dumping us for the Chinese [and will regret it down the road], India’s playing the political game, Karzai has never been reliable, but no political figure in Afghanistan is, so we can’t replace him with someone that could possibly bring peace there by themselves.

  6. lysias says:

    When the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War, I got the distinct impression that that was the national security state (CIA + military) going off on its own, and that the clumsy, unbelievable story about out-of-date CIA maps was just a way to conceal the fact that President Clinton didn’t have the power to prevent the national security state from doing that sort of thing.

  7. MadDog says:

    Via the AP, here’s how the US is now spinning the attack:

    “AP sources: Fatal raid likely case of mistaken ID

    …U.S. officials say the account suggests that the Taliban may have deliberately tried to provoke a cross-border firefight that would set back fragile partnerships between the U.S. and NATO forces and Pakistani soldiers at the ill-defined border…

    [snip]

    …U.S. officials are working on the assumption the Taliban chose the location for the first attack, to create just such confusion, and draw U.S. and Pakistani forces into firing on each other, according to U.S. officials briefed on the operation…”

    Shorter US government: “We wuz twicked!”

  8. Jim White says:

    @MadDog: Yeah, but that version doesn’t even mention that the attack went on for an hour and a half and that Pakistan was contacting the US to ask them to stop. A similar version of the story is up at WaPo; at least it ends with this:

    The Pakistani post, called Volcano, is clearly marked on grids shared with Afghan and coalition forces and flies the Pakastani flag. Their mission, the official said, is to prevent the return of Afghan insurgents that Pakistan has driven over the border. “We have repeatedly sensitized our friends [in Afghanistan] to this situation and asked their cooperation,” the official said.

    Early Saturday, he said, Volcano “detected suspicious activity — sound and movement — in the vicinity. They are sitting there for the express purpose of stopping infiltration, so what do they do? They fire a few flares, a couple of mortar rounds and one or two bursts of heavy machine-gun fire in that direction.”

    The Pakistani official added that “there was no return fire” from the ground. He dismissed suggestions by U.S. officials that the subsequent strike on Volcano and another post by U.S. attack helicopters and helicopter gunships was a case of mistaken identity provoked by Taliban forces in the area.

    Even if the attack began that way, he said, “within a maximum of 10 or 15 minutes” the Americans should have known they were Pakistani military posts.

    The US still has some serious ‘splainin’ to do.

    There is the potential for messages not to have been delivered in both directions. The US-Afghan coalition claims in the WaPo article that they informed Pakistan the Special Operations group would be in the area that night while Pakistan claims it wasn’t informed. Then we have the continuation of the attack long after word should have gotten through to the US. Somebody somewhere may be stopping the flow of information.

  9. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: It seems that the latest NYT piece this evening changes the story again and partially answers the questions I posed:

    “…Another American official briefed on the raid said the airstrike was called in by a Special Forces team operating with Afghan forces. The team had engaged militants in a firefight on the Afghan side of the border. The militants then fled, and the joint force gave chase, the official said.

    Officials said that officials were investigating whether proper NATO protocols were followed before the strikes were called in…”

  10. MadDog says:

    @Jim White: And then there is this new tidbit from the NYT piece:

    “…The coalition forces tried to contact the Pakistani military on the other side of the border, the diplomats said, and believed they were free to fire back…”

  11. rugger9 says:

    @MadDog: #10
    For two hours with communications and clearly identified locations? The only possibility is a false flag operation, and so far NATO hasn’t tried that idea. Yet.

    I don’t see how the US tap dances out of this. They were tricked, but not by the Taliban, but by whoever profits from clamping down the border for supplies.

  12. MadDog says:

    The very latest (at this time) from the AP:

    “US suspects NATO forces lured into deadly raid

    …According to the U.S. military records described to the AP, the joint U.S. and Afghan patrol requested backup after being hit by mortar and small arms fire by Taliban militants.

    Before responding, the joint U.S.-Afghan patrol first checked with the Pakistani army, which reported it had no troops in the area, the military account said.

    Some two hours later, still hunting the insurgents – who had by then apparently fled in the direction of Pakistani border posts – the U.S. commander spotted what he thought was a militant encampment, with heavy weapons mounted on tripods.

    The joint patrol called for the airstrikes at around 2:21 a.m. Pakistani time, not realizing the encampment was apparently the Pakistani border post.

    Records show the aerial response included Apache attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship.

    U.S. officials are working on the assumption the Taliban chose the location for the first attack to create just such confusion and draw U.S. and Pakistani forces into firing on each other, according to U.S. officials briefed on the operation…”

    (My Bold)

    Changing stories are to be expected from warfare, so one shouldn’t be surprised here.

    However, one should note that the responsibility for the airstrike has shifted dramatically from initially being all the Afghan troop’s fault, to something like “maybe the US commander called in the airstrike”.

    In addition, all the other “little” details coming out now seem to also greatly modify the initial reporting. For example:

    The US now contacted the Pakistanis beforehand.

    The US now depicts itself as unable to read a map’s coordinates for the Pakistani posts including the Special Ops forces on the ground, the pilots in the attack helicopters and AC-130 gunship in the air, and the higherups in the chain of command back in camp who had to give prior approval for the airstrike.

    And most importantly, in a magical example of mindreading at a distance, the US has settled on the excuse that this was all a deliberate trick by the Taliban to make the US jealous and cause the US to breakup with its Pakistani girlfriend.

  13. Mary says:

    I’m just now reading the story MD linked and it is a pretty remarkable shift in the sands. We’ve gone from afghan troops to afghan and foreign troops to afghan and NATO troops to afghan and US troops. And we’ve gone from the fire coming from the post to someone deciding the post, which had bee there a long time, looking like a Taliban military encampment.

    At least, that’s the excuse for one of the posts fired upon. Silence on the other. And it took them two hours of pursuit against guys they never found, to get to the base. So the story is now that they did check with Pakistan about whether it had troops in the original area (no) and then they blindly move for two hours in pursuit (if they had taken out a village that happened to be where they wandered then everyone in it would have been called an insurgent after the blind pursuit in search of life to eradicate). What kind of a journalist reports that the “insurgents” (as opposed to, oh say maybe drug lords) ” had by then apparently fled in the direction of Pakistani border posts” when writing about a two hour blind pursuit that never caught the guys and that was based on the level of certainty and acumen that was willing to take out the border post without any confirmation? May the ap journos need to read up on not being used like a tool

  14. Larue says:

    Just a quick note that I miss your voice at FDL . . . I’ll look for you here more often . . . glad yer out and about still.

    ;-)

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