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VIEW: A Base for an Eye

Written 29 Nov 2011..Published 06 Dec 2011 in GEO NEWS BLOG

This week’s episode of ‘Homeland’ (TV serial) bears remarkable resemblance to events that transpired halfway across the world along the Durand line. In the drama, civilians are accidentally shot by officers while in pursuit of a wanted suspect and though there are witnesses who can testify to the contrary, the official story insists that the suspect fired first. In real life, ISAF led by Afghan Special Forces in hot pursuit of insurgents mowed down a Pakistani check post eerily echoes that very claim regarding the predawn raid which, were it not for their statement, reinforces Pakistan’s image as a wronged partner instead of the usual ‘janus-faced’ ally.

Admittedly, a very steep price has been paid for altering the perception with the lives of more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers who perished in an ISAF attack on 26 November 2011. Yet, even in a straightforward case like this – and no one contests the border violation – even when Pakistan is the wounded party – and it was – opinion makers continually challenge its credibility. Somehow we are culpable. Somewhere, we have sinned. The only facts undisputed in this scenario are that ISAF was involved and Pakistan suffered heavy causalities. The rest is a garbled blend of speculation, innuendo, and strategically applied whitewash.


Despite local resistance to the idea of a blunder, fratricide is easier to rationalize than voluntary manslaughter. A massacre of the kind that occurred that day may not have much justification in Pakistan’s eyes but it does have precedence. In Operation Medusa 2006 two US A-10 Thunderbolts accidentally strafed NATO forces in Afghanistan. A British convoy mistook Afghan police for Taliban insurgents and called in a US air strike. Human error remains a factor, advancements in technology notwithstanding. Military men chalk it up to ‘fog of war’ and when they do the term used is involuntary manslaughter; the perpetrators are charged with criminal negligence and appropriate action is taken.

Through their own assertion this has been the ‘deadliest’ border violation to date; other foreign media outlets classify it as their ‘costliest mistake’. The sudden switch from ‘friendly fire’ to ‘self defence’ abruptly changes that narrative in favour of NATO. The ambiguity surrounding the incident makes it possible for the stakeholders to seek the nearest most convenient exit from what is in fact an untenable position. Afghan Special Forces called for NATO air support after reportedly coming under fire from the Pakistani side of the border. That NATO refused to heed the Pak Army’s pleas and persisted with the attack for one and a half hour is worrisome.


If ISAF & Afghan forces were lured into a fire fight by Taliban – as some papers now claim, then their decision to continue the attack shows how much the lines between enemy combatants and allied forces have blurred. When it comes to drone attacks against alleged HVT’s (High Value Target) many accept the argument of collateral damage however grudgingly because these are the undeniable side effects of war. Granted that from the air every moving object is a potential target and fire fight situations are ripe for errors. Nevertheless, the failure to pull back in time meant that the soldiers on the Pakistani side who were caught off guard did not stand a chance against the incoming fire. It is easier to forgive a mistake than to ignore a cover-up and till the results of the investigation come in; the latter story will fuel our frenzied imagination.

It may be too soon to rush to judgement but not too soon to take a stand. Pakistan does not have much leverage left at this point. As many head off to lodge their protest at NATO’s facebook page, the state has demanded the return of Shamsi base and suspension of NATO bound oil supply for the proverbial ‘Eye’. Owned by UAE and used for mounting predator strikes till 2003, the strategic importance of Shamsi is now called into question and analysts no longer consider this air field as a primary launch pad for drone attacks. They believe that the allied show is poised to go on with or without Shamsi. UAE’s demand on the other hand, that the Americans be allowed to continue the use of the base is ill timed. And presumptuous. And a little bit insulting.

And yet none of the above actions imply that the cooperation is over. The Pak-US relationship runs on deception, distrust and disenchantment – especially on the public front. Privately Pakistan provides implicit support for drone strikes within its territory and has developed a high threshold for international meddling. This is why Pak military does not take on the intruders from the Western borders and pools its intelligence sharing apparatus. This is why the coordinates of the Pakistani check post that came under attack by ISAF were likely shared with the allied counterparts; to avoid the risk of fratricide. That the partnership has survived Osama, Raymond Davis and most recently, Admiral Mullen’s disdain for his Pakistani counterparts speaks for its resilience. And the high cost incurred in keeping it running – well that just gives grist to the ever efficient anti American mill.

America’s crusade and Pakistan’s jihad supposedly run on parallel tracks but are motivated by a different endgame. It is highly probable it will survive the recent allied adventurism. And when it does, the rules of engagement on both levels (political & military) must be reassessed. But even under different parameters, the core philosophy remains the same – the annihilation of extremism in all its forms. Pakistani’s who have relegated the United States to the enemy camp should not forget that ‘enemy of thine enemy’ (Taliban/Al Qaeda) is still an enemy no matter whose banner it claims to carry. Americans who openly question their ally’s commitment and frequently write off its losses (both civilian and military) need to watch where they are going. This alliance, bruised, battered or busted and badly mishandled on both sides may be the only thing keeping them on track for the scheduled exist strategy.

Dedicated to the Martyrs of Pakistan’s 26/11

Image courtesy of: http://pakistanmediawatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Shamsi-Airbase.jpg
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