With Allies Like These: US Bombs Pakistani Base

Will Obama be able to recover from the latest hit to his efforts in the Middle East?

Anti US rally in Pakistan 521 (photo credit:  REUTERS/Akram Shahid)
Anti US rally in Pakistan 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Akram Shahid)
US President Barack Obama’s idiosyncratic “AfPak strategy” suffered an embarrassing setback last week. A midnight raid by NATO forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border resulted in US helicopters accidently killing 25 Pakistani soldiers at a base located on the Pakistan side of the border.
Claims were initially made that the NATO forces were provoked by gunfire originating near the base and only then retaliated. After apparently receiving confirmation that there were no Pakistani personnel or assets at that location, the Apache attack helicopters and AC-130 gunship were highly effective in destroying their chosen target.
However, senior Pakistani military personnel have denied this account and have called the attack a blatant act of aggression. One theory currently circulating is that Taliban fighters may have deliberated tricked the NATO forces into attacking the Pakistani base by opening fire on them with mortars and small arms from positions close to the base. Taliban militants are known to operate camps and safe havens from within Pakistan, crossing the border into Afghanistan as needed to launch their attacks.
An immense embarrassment to the Obama Administration, this case of mistaken identity is also a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and international law that has set a new low in Washington’s rapidly deteriorating diplomatic relationship with Islamabad.
Despite perfunctory apologies from the American commander on the ground in Afghanistan, General John Allen, and the US ambassador in Islamabad, Cameron Munter, for this “tragic unintended incident”, anti-American sentiment has continued to rise in Pakistan, a key US ally and a nuclear power in its own right. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promptly offered her condolences to the Pakistani people, but popular demands for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan are mounting.
As retribution for this “friendly fire” incident, Pakistani police have begun to interrupt and delay strategically important fuel supply deliveries, potentially leaving NATO and US soldiers exposed. In addition, access to a key Pakistani airbase, which has been vital to the US’s ongoing campaign of drone bombings, has been revoked. Senior Pakistani political figures, such as Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and opposition politician and former international cricketing legend Imran Khan, have condemned the attacks in uncompromising terms. Some opposition parties are even demanding that all ties with the US be cut.
Although the 1,600-mile border between these two neighboring countries is often poorly defined and hotly disputed, the ramifications arising from these unnecessary deaths will be significant for the US. It is unclear what immediate and practical steps the Obama Administration can take to address the fear and lack of trust that is poisoning the Pakistan relationship. Memories of the recent incursion onto Pakistan’s sovereignty in connection with the assassination of Osama bin Ladin is fresh in the minds of many disgruntled Pakistanis.
Is the President’s “AfPak strategy” about leveraging our relationships with our ally Pakistan to obtain peace and stability in Afghanistan? Or is it about conducting our own separate war in Pakistani territory, regardless of whether there is local approval for such activities?
Strangely, anti-war protests in the US have been absent during Obama’s first term, despite a significant enlargement of US engagements and commitments in numerous new countries around the globe. For example, the President’s significant use of, and reliance on, unmanned drone bombings has received little criticism from those protest groups that so vocally and ceaselessly criticized the prior Administration’s activities in Iraq.
Of course, there are alternatives to indiscriminate bombing raids and drone attacks. For example, NATO is currently offering Taliban fighters $150 per month to stop shooting at them and go back home. As a bonus, the retired militants are allowed to keep their guns, and they also receive an amnesty for all of their past activities, even if they include atrocities against women and children.
Nice work if you can get it!
Ideally, the policy’s goal is to encourage Taliban fighters to walk away from the fighting and resume their prior lives with a measure of dignity and honor.  Over $150 million have been allocated to the scheme, although only about 3,000 Taliban are believed to have participated in the program, which is below initial NATO expectations.
When US and NATO forces eventually leave, Pakistan will be the dominant international factor in Afghanistan’s future. To attempt to construct a lasting peace that will contribute to stability in the region, without involving Pakistan and recognizing the key role it will play going forward, is naive and self-defeating.
Unfortunately the Obama Administration is currently scrambling to limit the damage that the deaths will have on US-sponsored negotiations scheduled for next week in Germany, for which Pakistan is an essential participant. Islamabad has indicated that it will boycott the conference, in protest of the attack. Whether the senior State Department and Defense Department officials who have been mobilized to engage their Pakistani counterparts will be successful remains unclear.
Obama desperately needs a working relationship with the Pakistani leadership, both politically and militarily, if he is ever going to accomplish his often-repeated aims in the region. Without such a relationship, it is difficult to see how a realistic exit strategy for US troops can be developed and executed. Without such an exit strategy, it seems as if US blood and treasure will continue to be spilled along this border for some time to come.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Economist.