Moeed Pirzada | FB Blog |

I came to the DGMO Pakistan Military’s briefing on 29th Nov traumatized and almost convinced that NATO may have attacked the Pakistani posts in Mohmand Agency as part of some “operation punishment”.

But while Gen. Ashfaq was being crucified, by many journalists by their repeated insane suggestions that why he did not call Pakistan Air force to shoot down the US helicopters, my mind was racing on the massive information he had provided; information on terrain, videos and stills of the hills and Pakistani posts, nature of engagements and especially the kind of procedure ridden coordination that exists between Pakistani military and NATO and it started to flicker in my mind that a horrible mistake, errors of judgment or failures in communication during the ‘fog of war’ cannot be ruled out.

Having said this, and in all fairness, the evidence we have seen on record, and the contradictory stories being planted by unnamed NATO officials in WSJ, Guardian and Reuters put together paint a disturbing picture and the onus clearly lies on NATO to explain.

Any objective mind will like to know: why NATO abandoned the understandings reached in “Mutually Agreed Mechanisms for Operations close to Borders”? How come operations were being conducted close to Pakistani borders without the Pakistani side being informed? This question becomes all the more important since these posts were established to prevent the entry of TTP militants from Afghanistan into Pakistan and NATO/ISAF never conducted any supporting operations in this particular area in the past several months? If NATO/ISAF were facing a kind of serious fire from an enemy that justified massive air retaliation then how come they had no causalities? How come NATO commanders ignore or confuse GPS determined stationary positions, provided in map grids, at hill tops at 8000 feet, manned by almost 50 officers and soldiers, using the kind of weapons Taliban guerrillas will not use? How come intermittent fire by gunship helicopters and support by airplanes continue for more than an hour when Pakistani side was communicating to NATO HQ in Kabul and military liaison officers in Islamabad?

These questions difficult in their own right suddenly assume a much greater importance when we view them amidst the overall perceptions that are taking shape since the Taliban attacks on the US embassy in Kabul and Mike Mullen’s much repeated comments against ISI. The un-ending chatter on the web provides a peep; while most Pakistanis are convinced that attack was a deliberate act and the American military is sending a signal to Pakistani military for its perceived sin of not doing enough against the Taliban, many American and interestingly Indian commentators on the web are enthusiastically supporting the same contention though with different emotions. They argue that NATO had to do this to teach ‘double crossing Pakistanis’ a much needed lesson; and that more of the same is needed and this is time to call the Pakistani bluff regarding NATO supply lines. The recent BBC documentary, “Secret Pakistan” that relies upon Bruce Riedel and Amarullah Saleh as experts to prove that Pakistan is double crossing only adds to these perceptions.

Even before this, fears have been growing in Pakistani minds that Pentagon and CIA are consciously working on a blue print for widening the Afghan conflict to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Some remember that in Vietnam end game Gen Abrams had successfully convinced Nixon to widen the conflict to involve Cambodia.

While Pakistani paranoia and the juicy desires of anti-Pakistani conglomerate may all be exaggerated, there is some truth to the Pakistani fears that a ‘mind-set’ is brewing, between Washington and Kabul that is convinced that without the need of showing any flexibility towards the Afghan insurgency, Pakistanis -if pushed hard- can ensure a desired outcome of the conflict.

Now mind-sets are neither monolith nor static; if anything they keep growing and evolving. If there are some elements inside Pentagon or CIA who think that escalating conflict into Pakistan’s tribal areas will pressurise Pakistanis to behave then there are others who think that creating a scenario of tough dealing with Pakistan may help in an election year. And there are yet other ‘regional interests’ inside Washington that would very much like to set a stage, and a slippery path, whereby the enormous American power can be physically used to humble and diminish Pakistan’s regional posture to fashion their ‘regional agendas’.

It is precisely in this context that Pakistan’s strong reaction to NATO attacks can be best understood. The material decisions to cut off NATO supplies, reviewing intelligence and diplomatic relations and the symbolism of denying Shamsi Base and boycotting the Bonn Conference are thus attempts to send a clear message that new rules of engagement, if in offing, are not acceptable. And as brilliantly argued by Ejaz Haider in these pages, “Do away with this charade” (Express, 30th Nov) this is a much needed attempt to put brakes now to challenge and neutralize this ‘mind-set’ that if unchecked may lead to disastrous consequences in a difficult asymmetrical relationship.

Onus to resolve this crisis is squarely on Washington. It will soon find out what really happened in the wee hours of 26th Nov. Most of it may never be made public; much of it may not be important but the context is important and it is Washington’s responsibility to engage constructively with a shocked and paranoid Pakistan, in public and behind the scenes, to defuse the fears that if left unaddressed will cause further instability in the region. May be its time to remember that US-Pakistan relations, even in their much condemned transactional nature, have a fifty years long sanction of ‘real mutual needs’ defined by history and geography; only time and trial will be a judge whether new alliances that are being conceived will really work. Washington thus needs to look beyond the emotions of the moment and frustrations of tactical nature. Pressures of Afghan endgame, of withdrawal deadlines and of US elections are no doubt important but should not be allowed to irreversibly damage a relationship that despite its ‘unsexy nature’ has always provided a ‘shock absorber’ in this region.

Both Washington and Islamabad have to look beyond Afghanistan and withdrawal deadlines. Recent piece by Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, “End of the American Era” made a provocative reading. Walt argues with formidable evidence that Washington may be losing its leverage but will continue to shape the world for the greater part of 21st century. America’s engagement and need to provide stability in this region will continue beyond Afghanistan end game and withdrawal whenever it happens.

Washington thus needs to interpret the ‘nightmare at Salala’ and the challenge created by it, in its wider context. On one hand it has to soothe a ‘traumatized Pakistan’ and on the other it has to neutralize the ‘reactive mind-set’ in beltway; both demons if unchecked may further destabilize this region.