Pakistan and the Tangled Web

By Jay Holmes

On Saturday, November 26, 2011, NATO conducted airstrikes against what later proved to be two Pakistani border observation posts. Twenty-four Pakistani soldiers were killed in the two air attacks, and NATO’s always tenuous relationship with Pakistan suffered a major blow.

The two Pakistani positions were fairly well dug in to withstand light weapons fire from Taliban or from any other brand of the many armed bandits that have inhabited the area for centuries. The lightly constructed Pakistani bunkers were not built to withstand the cannon fire that NATO or US aircraft can bring to bear, and most of the inhabitants were killed.

Two similar, but much smaller and less publicized, incidents had already occurred during the last few years. In both of these previous incidents, Pakistan and the USA agreed that Pakistani forces (without orders from above) had opened fire on NATO forces before NATO returned fire.

The reaction from Pakistan to this most recent incident was instantaneous and about as predictable as the results of the cannon fire, itself. Pakistani politicians quickly entrenched themselves in their positions before any investigation could be conducted. Pakistan closed the two critical border crossings from Pakistan to Afghanistan to trucks that carry supplies to US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Less than half of the coalition’s supplies arrive via Pakistan, but the closure is a considerable inconvenience for them.

It is too early to say what might have caused the incident. The US military, in conjunction with NATO investigators, will review gun camera film, radio tapes, and combat reports. The pilots and the Afghan and US Special Forces that were operating near the area where the air strikes occurred will be questioned multiple times. NATO and the US will be under pressure from politicians to quickly spit out an answer, but the Pentagon and the White House, along with other coalition governments, will want the most accurate report possible.

So far, a few key facts are striking. To start with, there is no denying the impact of twenty-four dead Pakistani soldiers. Most elements of the not-altogether-unified Pakistani military establishment are doing everything they can to use the incident to assert more control over the Pakistani government, and more influence over the Pakistani people.

When I listened to early responses from Pakistani spokesmen, I immediately realized that they were being deceptive, but the precise nature of the deception is not yet clear to me, and may not yet be clear to the Pakistani government, itself. One glaring bit of evidence of deception in the Pakistani response is that it carelessly emphasized that, “The attacks by NATO were absolutely unprovoked. Everyone in the outposts were asleep, nobody was awake so nobody in the outposts could have fired first.”

While I have never been a member of the Pakistani military, it’s still quite obvious to me (and to anyone who has spent a day or more in any military service) that a military team would never all sleep simultaneously unless they were on leave together. Even in a base in a peaceful area, soldiers and sailors stand watch around the clock. The notion that Pakistani troops would all be asleep on the Pakistan/Afghan border in the middle of the night is beyond absurd. The only reason I can think of so far for such a desperate lie would be that the Pakistani government is covering up some provocation by a shooter or shooters in or near the outposts.

Once Pakistan had announced that they were certain the coalition attacks were deliberate and unprovoked, the Afghan government responded by reminding everyone that they had, on multiple occasions, protested to Pakistan about Pakistani troops allowing Taliban to operate next to Pakistani border outposts, and essentially use the Pakistani border outposts as human shields while firing on Afghan and coalition forces inside of Afghanistan.

Both the US Special Forces and the Afghan Special Forces have stated that they are certain they were fired on by shooters at or near the outposts. The Pakistani outposts are distinguishable from Taliban outposts only by the fact that the Pakistani outposts are more hastily constructed and less elaborately furnished. The Special Forces troops may have believed that they were taking fire from Taliban outposts.

US and Pakistan military counterparts did communicate before and during the air attacks. So far, it seems that neither side had a clear picture of what was occurring. At one point, the Pakistani military informed a US Special Forces sergeant that there were no Pakistani troops in the area. The Pakistanis would have no reason to transmit such a message, unless the two sides were not clear on the location in question. Given the lack of reference points and the lack of clear demarcation on the Pakistan/Afghan border, it would not be difficult to make such a mistake. Tribes in the area where the attack occurred don’t recognize the border or any such thing as “Pakistan” or “Afghanistan,” and the border, itself, remains in dispute.

While we here in the West get to hear a wide variety of viewpoints concerning this incident, Pakistanis are not being allowed to hear what Western media outlets are saying. The Pakistani authorities have blocked Western news broadcasts since the incident occurred.

Once a proper investigation has been completed, we might know more about what occurred, but there are some things that the investigation cannot change.

1)    The families and friends of the dead Pakistani troops will remain angry. The Pakistan government will do its best to direct that anger away from itself and toward the US.

2)    While the Taliban and the many “Tali-clone” gangster groups are the root cause of the incident, they will do their best to profit from the deaths of the twenty-four Pakistani soldiers.

3)    The government of Pakistan will respond to any investigation based on its internal political needs rather than any determinable facts.

4)    The public response from Pakistan vs. the private response from Pakistan to the USA may vary wildly.

5)    If there is any duplicity on the part of the Pakistan military and intelligence services, it will not be unanimous. They are more concerned with their own internal power struggles than they are with either the Taliban or the USA.

6)    Outside interested parties such as Iran have no need for facts and will respond in their usual manner (Death to America).

7)    Where you stand depends on where you sit. The world’s media vendors’ commentary on the incident will be heavily influenced by their own agendas.

image from

While angry Pakistanis and Westerners might both be tempted to say, “It’s time for a divorce,” there are still reasons why both the West and Pakistan are better served by continuing to attempt to cooperate against the Tali-gangs. As long as the benefits outweigh the costs of this ugly marriage, the dysfunctional family will remain intact.

Do you have any questions?

13 comments on “Pakistan and the Tangled Web

  1. First, thanks for the insight.

    As for the need for this on-going dysfunctional family relationship, I agree. I’ve heard and read that an on-going (albeit tenuous) relationship is vital because of Pakistan’s nuclear capability.

    I leave culpability for who knew what when to minds like yours, Holmes. Tribal culture, warring factions and double, even triple-agent spins on the facts make me question whether we’ll ever be able to achieve our goal in these countries.

    I’m no longer certain what our end-game goal is–other than keeping nuclear capability out of the hands of extremists. And, what a fine job we’re doing on that in Iran.

  2. J Holmes says:

    Hi Gloria. You make a great point about Pakistan owning nuclear weapons. Pakistan has over 110 nuclear warheads and had the capacity to produce about forty warheads per year. They also now have the technology to add tritium to their new warheads which would increase the explosive energy of each warhead by a factor of three or four. Pakistan claims that they have the worlds best security program for their weapons. They don’t.

    As for Iran that sad story begs an entire volume of books.I have an article done concerning Iran but events in Iran keep overtaking my article before I can finish it.

  3. Thank you for an account of the Pakistan/Nato incident that I trust. I forwarded it to my husband as he follows daily US and world events.

    • J Holmes says:

      Thank you Marion. I wish i had more complete information to offer up a more precise analysis but I suppose that over time things will become a little clearer.

  4. Hi Holmes, good article on a confusing subject. I think you’re right to call it a tangled web. The NATO investigation will uncover the facts of what happened, but the immediate stance from Pakistan suggests they’ve seen an opportunity to use this for their own ends (whatever they may be) and grabbed it quick. But as Gloria points out, we’re better off with a relationship with Pakistan because of the nuclear threat.


  5. I was listening to a piece on NPR about this today. It is a fine mess, isn’t it? And I find it really hard to figure out how to extricate ourselves from this area – ever – if this is what is going to continue happening. I’m predicting that the United States will next have troops in Pakistan. I’m surprised we don’t already!

    • J Holmes says:

      Hello Renee. We have troops in Pakistan operating a franchise of the “drone delivery service”. Pakistan has a large and expensive military. What they lack is a cohesive government. As fantastically capable as they are, no number of US Marine divisions or Air force fighter squadrons could cause a useful shift in Pakistani policy.

      What we in the west consider cross isle selfish destructive behavior in governments D.C., London, Madrid Ottawa etc would be considered a stunning new day of political enlightenment in Pakistan. Pakistan has yet to become a nation. They still have yet to identify themselves to themselves. They can’t tell us who they are because they have not told themselves yet. They remain a reaction to India and to other political dynamics (real and imaginary) that are well outside of their own most pressing needs.

      Before Pakistan can become anything like an “ally” to anyone they need to become an ally to themselves. For now all we can do is take them a day at a time.

  6. Dave says:

    Hmmmm…didn’t we already have some troops visit Pakistan recently? Unfortunately, they couldn’t stay long, as the person they came to visit suffered a sudden and fatal collision with some fast-moving metal objects.

    I always love your analysis of the wherefores and whys on these incidents.Few things happen in isolation and I appreciate your ability to tie it into the bigger picture.

    And now for a question…aside from engagement with a nuclear-armed regional power wannabee, what exactly do we get from our dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan?

  7. J Holmes says:

    Hi David. Besides the rapidly growing nuke arsenal NATO nations care about Pakistan because they neighbor China, Iran and Afghanistan. If we are engaged in Afghanistan we need Pakistani cooperation. A Pakistan that falls into the level of anarchy that allowed the Taliban to operate bases for the export of major terrorist strikes against western nations would not be good for the West.

    Beyond the vaguely held notion of a “war on terror” Pakistan is in fact a potential ally. They have a society that includes large numbers of well educated scientists, doctors and engineers.

    A Pakistan run by a truly “pro-Pakistan” government would be a natural ally to Western nations.

    What we should perhaps consider is that events in Afghanistan are ten times more critical to Pakistan than they are to us.

  8. EllieAnn says:

    Whatever happened that night sounds fishy. That’s a lot of troops to die because of an accident.
    Thanks for your perspective!

  9. J Holmes says:

    Hi Ellie. Given the lack of “unity of command” in the Pakistani army, intelligence Service, and government, and given Pakistan’s habit of not sharing critical information with their “allies” in the area it is possible that the entire disaster was an accident. If anyone in the Pakistani military acted maliciously they may have acted alone or they may be part of a small number of al qaeda or taliban plants. There are many individuals in the Pakistani military,government, and intelligence services that are desperate to damage any relationship between Pakistan and the West.

    On the US/NATO side I see little motive to create such an incident. So far the evidence supports assertion by the coalition forces that they had indeed been fired on from inside of Pakistan.

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