Unfriendly fire

Published November 30, 2011

ON the day after the rather one-sided border clash that, at a stroke, undid all the fence-mending in which Pakistan and the US have lately been engaged, US Senator Richard Durbin sought to put the disastrous incident in perspective.

“Imagine how we would feel,” the Democrat from Illinois said on Fox News, “if it had been 24 American soldiers killed by Pakistani forces at this moment.”

Chances are that disproportionate military retaliation, in one shape or another, would swiftly have followed, regardless of the consequences.

The repercussions of possible future ‘unintended tragedies’ of this variety are, of course, unpredictable. For the moment, Pakistan has decided it won’t play ball. It has been suggest that the closure of Nato’s supply routes via Torkham and Chaman is permanent, although that is unlikely.

The closure of the US airbase at Shamsi has been sought before, but even if it were to be achieved this time around, it would be little more than a gesture, given that its use as a secondary base for drone flights reportedly ceased in April.

(Somewhat greater transparency about the status of the base would, meanwhile, be welcome — although, even if it previously served primarily as a private airstrip for members of Gulf ruling families who periodically descend on Pakistan to shoot protected species, its secret hand-over to the US was presumably at Islamabad’s, rather than Abu Dhabi’s, behest.)

Given the level of national indignation, it is inevitable that calls for a more robust response will be heard. However, there isn’t a great deal more Pakistan can reasonably be expected to do. Ceasing all cooperation with the US and Nato may not be an utterly unviable option, but its possible consequences need to be thought through. Were the alliance to be ruptured, how would Pakistan react thereafter to border incursions? Would the hostilities be reciprocated? Does all-out war even bear contemplation?

The situation is a monumental mess, and Pakistan cannot deny a key role in creating it, going back to the 1980s. Of course, nor can the US. Or, for that matter, Saudi Arabia and various other parties. Not to mention the former Soviet Union.

But Pakistan, more than any other state, cannot walk away from the mess because of its geographical proximity to Afghanistan — the porous, colonial-era Durand Line, whose ill-defined nature has repeatedly been cited in recent days as a possible mitigating factor for Nato’s ‘error’.

It would probably have also been wiser not to boycott next week’s Bonn conference on Afghanistan — even though there is plenty of scepticism about its potential utility.

The region abounds in ironies, and one of these is that while Pakistan is valued as a participant in such discussions because of its presumed influence over crucial Taliban factions, it has never been completely trusted as an ally for precisely the same reason.

Washington’s twin-track Afghan strategy — war-war complemented by the occasional jaw-jaw — relies to a certain extent on Pakistan in both contexts.

Another notable irony is that on the day before Nato aircraft attacked two Pakistani border posts, the American commanding general in Kabul, John Allen, was holding talks with Pakistan’s army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani on — what else? — border cooperation.

The two sides have different tales on exactly what occurred in the early hours of Saturday, with Afghan and Nato sources saying air support was summoned after they came under fire from the direction of the posts, while the Pakistan Army has dismissed this as nonsense and described the attack as unprovoked — adding, for good measure, that the relevant terrain has been Taliban-free for some time, and that Nato was aware of the coordinates of the military posts.

What’s more, the attack went on even after the Pakistani military had conveyed its alarm and angst to Nato.

One of the wounded Pakistani soldiers has been quoted as saying that he and his comrades initially assumed they were under attack by the Taliban. It’s the same story, apparently, on the other side of the border. Although, as the Pakistan Army has pointed out, it is unsupported by any reports of casualties.

The competing narratives seem irreconcilable, but Nato has promised a thorough investigation and invited Pakistan to participate. It would be fatuous to turn down the offer. There can obviously be no guarantee that the inquiry will reach a mutually acceptable conclusion. But there is certainly no harm in trying.

Despite everything, it is hard to believe that Nato forces would gratuitously attack military posts inside Pakistani territory. The troops that claim to have taken fire were mainly Afghan. It is not inconceivable that the air cover could have been summoned on the basis of misinformation — possibly of the malicious variety. Whatever the case, an inquiry could potentially get to the bottom of it.

As for recalibrating Pakistan’s relations with the US, that is something that has been required for decades. The Truman administration was not overly keen about the idea of embracing the incipient state as a client when Liaquat Ali Khan threw open his arms and ran towards Uncle Sam, but since those days it has exploited the relationship to its advantage, and the incumbent nephew has generally gone along without asking too many questions.

This year has been particularly testing for Pakistan, what with the sordid Raymond Davis affair, followed by the extended (albeit not particularly surprising) violation of national sovereignty in the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden. And now this, following hot on the heels of the memogate scandal

Pakistan certainly needs to wriggle free from Uncle Sam’s grasp. But that’s not all. It also needs to wriggle free of the army’s choke-hold, which has rarely been eased since 1977. And of the self-serving politicians who pretend to guide its destiny. And of the obscurantist mentality that is another of Ziaul Haq’s odious legacies.

Perhaps Occupy Islamabad wouldn’t be a bad idea, provided it isn’t put into action by the Americans. Or, worse still, the Taliban.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

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