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 dailyhaha.com

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?

Tragedy in Afghanistan Not a Surprise

By Jay Holmes

Five members of the United States Army are facing Court Martial for the alleged murder of innocent civilians in Afghanistan.

The facts of the case are not completely known to the Army itself, and I know even less about it. From the information thus far available, it appears that this group of soldiers had been involved in heavy drug use, and had been noticeably unhealthy for months before allegations of murder surfaced. The local command may have some explaining to do as to the condition of their soldiers.

Whatever occurred should not be ignored. I am in no position to judge the facts since I am, for the most part, unaware of what they actually are. What I can see clearly so far is that these soldiers were living in an abnormal situation and under tremendous stress, and that the general orders that every American service person lives by were disregarded. But by whom, why and when? Did officers ignore clear signals that their subordinates were acting outside of standing orders? I don’t know.

The Court Martial members will have the responsibility to determine the facts of the case and to assign responsibility in the form of “guilty” or “innocent.” For the sake of the dead, the accused, and all of us, I hope that the Army does so justly. I do not envy the accused, and I do not envy the members of the court. But the US Army, the Department of Defense, and we as a nation have a deeper responsibility to these men, to the people of Afghanistan, and to ourselves as a nation.

War is an ugly business. It is inevitably a tale of misery, sacrifice, and human suffering in the pursuit of triumph. We, as a nation, are at times willing to enter into that realm of misery with the hope of preventing a tragedy greater than the war itself. In our decision to make war, we should never assume or pretend that the young soldiers that we send to fight our wars are capable of remaining unaffected by the hell that we send them to.

It is in the best interest of the US Army and it’s soldiers to examine this case deeply, not just to determine guilt or innocence, but to better understand the causes of whatever occurred.

As the war in Afghanistan continues on in it’s current form, the military members that are fighting it will continue to face very demoralizing and frustrating conditions. They are exposed to attacks by civilians that are not clearly distinguishable from the innocents, and many of the innocents often are not. They see endemic corruption by an incompetent and seemingly unconcerned Afghan government. Afghanistan is a well-seeded fertile field for cultivating precisely the horrible type of incident that may have occurred.

The question that we have a deep moral obligation to answer is simple. What can and should we do to prevent this type of incident from occurring? The Army might be tempted to answer that the Uniform Code of Military Justice is in place precisely to prevent this sort of misconduct. That UCMJ has been in place a long time, and perhaps has helped to make such incidents rare, but, clearly, our troops need more help than what they are getting from us or the UCMJ.

We owe ourselves a complete investigation to obtain the facts and a thorough, dispassionate analysis of the conditions and causes of the incident.