Pakistan rebuffs attempts by shutting down military supply route for US/NATO forces

Washington has been abuzz with speculations that the Pentagon is in no mood to wind down the war in Afghanistan according to President Obama’s plans and thus to be seen as a defeated army limping back home. Instead, it plans to broaden the theatre of war into Pakistan, citing the presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda in its tribal areas.

By doing so, the Pentagon will be able to prolong the war, putting off America’s Soviet-style humiliation for another day, and try to save America’s international image as a super power from being undermined.

One cannot ignore, also, the emerging belief that America’s military leadership is now motivated by the ‘Perpetual War’ doctrine, for the reason that President Eisenhower had pointed out: it is wars that feed the ‘American military industrial complex’.

NATOIf the Republicans gain control of the US Senate in mid-term elections, the Neocons, Tea Partiers, and conservatives can push for more attacks inside Pakistan on the plea that the Taliban cannot be defeated unless their sanctuaries in Pakistan are destroyed — the line that the Pentagon takes.

In such an eventuality, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (or FATA) that border Afghanistan would likely become the war zone on the pattern of ‘mission creep’ of Vietnam. Just as the Americans blundered into Cambodia and Laos to destroy the communist camps and lost the war, they would be walking into a similar quagmire again. America doesn’t seem to learn its lessons. But this not surprising at all; all powers in the throes of decline fail to do so.

The danger of such an eventuality is real, despite President Obama’s assurances of a lasting friendly relationship with Pakistan, unless the Obama White House reigns in its military leadership, which has shown signs of defiance, and asserts civilian control over the nation’s war policies.

For the Pentagon to have its way would be an extremely dangerous development. Amounting to a declaration of war on Pakistan, there is no way the Pakistan Army could sit back and watch the “International Security Assistance Force” (ISAF, which amounts to NATO led by the U.S.) troops initiate action inside its borders. ISAF would then be pitched against a half-million strong, battle hardened, world class professional Pakistani army, in addition to the Taliban and same Pashtun tribes that straddle both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.

If ISAF has not been able to subdue a far lesser number of rag-tag Taliban fighters, how they would fare against such a force remains to be seen.

One thing is certain, though: This would give a new dimension to the American-led war in the so-called Af-Pak region, send South and South West Asia up in flames, and cause a huge setback to American regional interests.

For the last nine years, Pakistan’s forced involvement in the American war in Afghanistan, which the deranged Neocons called the ‘war on terror’, has brought nothing but death, destruction and suffering for the people of this country. It destroyed peace and stability and promoted a culture of violence and religious extremism. People are up to their necks with the consequences of this American adventure. Not content with what Pakistan has been through, the Americans continue to insist upon it to ‘do more’.

The recent threat by General Petraeus to undertake unilateral military operations inside Pakistan if the Pakistan Army failed to comply with the demand to eliminate the militant groups in North Waziristan, particularly the Haqqani Network, was followed through by NATO gunship helicopters, which violated Pakistan’s airspace in Waziristan’s Kurram Agency and attacked a border outpost on September 30, killing three Pakistani soldiers and injuring two.

Reportedly, Gen. Petraeus, supported by President Obama’s national security advisor James Jones, strongly pushed for these attacks and convinced the Obama administration to follow a “Get Tough Policy” towards Pakistan. This also resulted in an unusually high number of drone attacks recently.

These incursions and attack by gunship helicopters were interpreted by Islamabad as an attempt to test the waters and gauge the response of the Pakistan Army. The justification advanced for these violations, “hot pursuit” of insurgents, was rejected as a mere cover up. The Pakistan Army argues that ISAF commanders in Afghanistan know very well, and so should their pilots, that there is no agreement with Pakistan over the rules of “hot pursuit”, and this meant that pursuit, no matter how hot, ends where the ‘red line’ of Pakistan’s border begins.

To firmly nip in the bud any ISAF ambitions of building upon this little adventure, the Pakistan Army lodged a strong protest calling for an inquiry, and so did the pliant, US-installed, Zardari government in its own feeble way. ISAF blinked and the inquiry found the firing incident and earlier helicopter intrusions to be violations of Pakistan’s air space and deaths of Pakistani soldiers an avoidable mistake.

Islamabad demanded a public apology, assurances that this would not happen again, and action against those responsible for the deaths of Pakistani troops. The Pakistan Army made it clear that these acts on the part of ISAF constituted a clear violation and breach of the UN mandate under which ISAF operates, and that this would not be acceptable in the future. Military sources also clarified that the said mandate “terminates” at the Afghanistan border and any impression being created by ISAF about the existence of an agreement over rules of “hot pursuit” is not factually correct.

Coming on the back of intensifying public criticism of drone attacks, the helicopter attack caused public anger to boil over. Both the army and the government had to act, and act they did. To calm public anger and as a retaliatory measure, one of the two supply route crossings at Pak-Afghan border at Torkham was shut down indefinitely, only to be opened ten days later after hectic efforts, apologies, and assurances by ISAF.

ISAF imports about 80% of its crucial supplies, from food to fuel, through the Karachi port. Supplies are trucked to Afghanistan after travelling over a thousand miles through Pakistan to two border crossings at Torkham and Chaman. At any given time, 3000-4000 ISAF containers and tankers, reportedly guarded by undercover Blackwater operatives, are on Pakistani roads, tearing up the roads and causing traffic jams.

The route closure caused a supply chain fiasco for ISAF. In no time, over 10,000 containers and fuel tankers were lined up on the Pakistani side of the border, while stocks ran low in Afghanistan. Pakistan was well within its rights to withhold a facility it provides to ISAF, not under any contractual obligation but as a gesture of support. During the 10-day wait, about 150 oil tankers and containers were torched by suspected Taliban and angry Pakistanis.

When launching their ‘get tough policy’, General Petraeus and the Pentagon underestimated the response of Pakistan Army, which came to them as a surprise. According to the Washington Post, they did not expect the border crossing to remain closed for more than three days. Although in his book “Obama’s war”, Bob Woodward says that US intelligence had “indicated the Pakistanis believed the US would not jeopardize their relationship” because of its dependence on Pakistan for its supply routes to Afghanistan, this was not taken into account.

This strained relations between the Pentagon and the Pakistan Army. Reportedly, the crisis in US-Pakistan relations and the supply chain trauma that ISAF had to face on account of route closure led to Jones’s departure ahead of his planned retirement later this year. Gareth Porter, writing for Inter Press Service, reports that “President Obama has clearly abandoned the tough line toward Pakistan represented by cross-border helicopter attacks and accelerated drone strikes in an effort to reduce tensions.”

In pushing his unilateral escalation of force, General Petraeus allowed the element of distrust to creep back into US-Pakistan relations that President Obama has been taking pains to remove after a long period of strained relations.

NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen was the first to regret the incident, pleading that the killing of three Pakistani soldiers was unintended. They initially dragged their feet, but later, under a White House directive, the US Ambassador in Islamabad, Ms. Anne Peterson, and ISAF Commander, General David Petraeus, made public apologies. This was followed by a letter from Admiral Mike Mullen to Pakistan’s army chief General Kayani expressing his deep regrets over the incident.

By closing the border crossing, Pakistan established a powerful leverage over Washington and US/NATO command, one it can use in the future to protect Pakistan’s sovereignty, stop cross-border raids, and curtail drone attacks.

By forcing Washington to back off, Pakistan conveyed several clear messages. Pakistan is no Afghanistan and could not be taken for granted; its sovereignty and its national boundaries must be respected; its patience also has limits despite its close alliance with the US; and carrying the war into this country of 175 million people would, after all, not be a piece of cake. It also carried the reminder that Pakistan’s assistance remained a key element in ISAF’s operations in Afghanistan and is dependent upon respect for its sensitivities.

Although the US/NATO command pretends that alternate supply routes via Central Asian countries could be used, the fact is that this will involve massive airlifts and time delays and has not been found very viable.

This episode also made clear that the term Af-Pak coined by the Americans was a misnomer and should not be misinterpreted to mean that Afghanistan and Pakistan can be lumped together by ISAF for operational purposes. Pakistan is a separate entity, a sovereign country, which jealously guards it geographical boundaries. The mandate that ISAF was given for Afghanistan neither applied to Pakistan nor could be extended to it.

The resulting scenario might even influence the Obama administration’s thinking towards the war in another way. US officials have concluded that the war will remain unwinnable unless Pakistan changes its policy towards suspected Taliban sanctuaries in FATA. But if Pakistan refuses to change its policy and persists with a firm stand like the one it took recently, and if this forces Washington to back off like it did now, this might strengthen President Obama’s hand in insisting on a drawdown of troops to begin in July 2011.

There are widespread concerns about a spiraling rise in CIA drone strikes in Waziristan that are inflicting heavy casualties. For several years, CIA drones have attacked targets within FATA that were labeled as insurgent sanctuaries. While the US calls every one killed a terrorist, the fact is that numerous innocent men, women, and children have lost their lives or have been injured and maimed. The seething tribesmen who suffer these losses become Taliban sympathizers, some even joining their ranks. In the end, the backlash translates into growing militancy in Pakistan.

The US has no legal mandate for drone attacks within the borders of another sovereign country, and they amount to state terrorism that is in grave violation of human rights and of international law. The Zardari government remains completely unresponsive. A former chief of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, has demanded of the Pakistan Air Force to shoot down US drones — sentiments that are widely shared by the people and the rank and file of the armed forces.

Word has been leaked by the Zardari government that it follows an agreement between the former regime of President Musharraf and the US administration in allowing these attacks. Being an extremely important issue of public interest, this agreement, if there is one, must be released to the public.

The government is bound by the Constitution to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens and is therefore under obligation to revoke this unlawful agreement, unilaterally if necessary, as it illegally allows a foreign government to slaughter non-combatant Pakistani citizens on mere suspicion of being terrorists, without apportioning blame or giving them a fair trial.

And if the Zardari government deliberately turns a blind eye to the killings of its citizens by a foreign power in exchange for the $2 billion in US aid annually and tens of millions of dollars in “black” payments it receives from CIA, it becomes an accomplice in the extra judicial killings of its citizens and must be held accountable.