We do not know what really happened in the border incident that resulted in the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops this weekend. We do not even know the nationality of the NATO forces and aircraft that are said to have engaged the Pakistanis. But unlike the frenzied, bigoted, politically primitive crowds burning American flags in the streets of Pakistan, we should not jump to conclusions.
Contrary to the more hysterical statements coming out of Pakistan, it is extremely unlikely that, without provocation, NATO forces attacked Pakistani positions on the other side of the border in order to humiliate Pakistan.
The Pakistani military and civilian authorities apparently believe otherwise. But then, paranoia laced with bizarre assumptions about the motivations of Pakistan’s “enemies” is arguably the default setting for Pakistan’s rulers. (Hence the national obsession with invasion and encirclement by India, even though it is Pakistan that has invaded its neighbor four times, cultivated military alliances with China and Burma, and sponsored terrorist attacks like the Bombay incident of 2008.)
This said, there are three genuine possibilities. Given that a combined NATO/Afghan force would not have called in an air strike unless it was coming under fire, those possibilities are that:
NATO troops being fired on from the border zone called the strikes onto the wrong coordinates, or the aircraft struck at the wrong targets, hitting innocent Pakistani army garrisons rather than the Taliban force that had fired on the coalition forces.
NATO troops called strikes onto the correct coordinates after Afghan Taliban forces had fired at coalition/NATO forces from positions close to or within Pakistani military outposts with or without the permission of Pakistani military units deployed there. Taliban forces have done this many times in the past, presumably hoping this proximity to Pakistani military facilities would protect them from return fire, or provoke an incident.
The NATO and Afghan troops were responding to deliberate hostile fire from Pakistani forces and replied in kind. There have been many such unprovoked attacks by Pakistani forces in the past few years, though the U.S. and NATO have kept quiet about them. They have also enjoined their forces not to return fire in order to protect relations with Islamabad. It is not clear why on this occasion the allied troops decided on a more robust response.
The third scenario is the most troubling, but it is far from unlikely that elements in the Pakistani military are deliberately escalating tensions on the border. Pakistan’s armed forces are apparently convulsed by anti-American fury. This has reached such an intensity that Indian analysts fear that mid-ranking officers may attempt a coup against an army command and a civilian leadership that is seen as too accommodating to the United States.
From an American perspective this seems strange. After all, the Pakistani military has for many years gotten away with a variety of anti-American and anti-coalition activities on the frontier and in Afghanistan. These include the renewed sponsorship of the Afghan Taliban beginning in 2005, the alleged harboring of Mullah Omar in Quetta, the use of the Haqqani network to carry out anti-government and anti-coalition terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, and efforts to control its side of the border that are at best half-hearted.
Nevertheless, the “humiliation” of the Osama bin Laden raid (the Pakistani military seems not the least embarrassed, let alone humiliated, by the presence of the al-Qaeda leader in Abbottabad) seems to have intensified the sense that Pakistani “honor” requires more — and more overt — military action against the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan.
This puts the U.S.-led coalition and U.S. policymakers in a very difficult position. The only way to deter Pakistani or Pakistani-sponsored attacks on Afghan and NATO forces may be to respond forcefully. But as long as Pakistan controls the key supply routes to Kabul, the U.S. and her allies are limited in their options. The fact that what may genuinely have been an accident provoked the closure of those routes makes this all too clear.
On the other hand, it might make sense for Secretary Clinton to point out to Islamabad that America will not always be vulnerable to this kind of leverage and that the American people are becoming as skeptical about the Pakistani-American alliance as the anti-American crowds in Pakistan. After the U.S. has drawn down its forces in Afghanistan, America may no longer feel obligated to support Pakistan economically and militarily, nor will it be so restrained if its forces in the region are attacked by Pakistan or its proxies. Finally, Pakistan should understand that the price to be paid for humiliating America in Afghanistan could be a fundamental shift in American regional strategy in favor of India — a move that would dramatically shift the strategic balance of power.
— Jonathan Foreman has reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India for National Review and other publications.