The raid on the Camp Bastion base by the Taliban last Friday was on every level a highly successful enemy operation, even given the fact that the U.S. and NATO defenders killed at least 14 of the attackers, perhaps wiping out their entire force.
After all, the destruction of six U.S. Harrier jump-jets and the killing of a U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel in charge of a Harrier squadron represent a level of achievement that would have pleased U.S. or British commandos in World War II.
But the raid may be more significant because of the skill and planning it required — skill and planning far beyond the reach of most of the guerilla bands that are loosely termed the Taliban. Even the most experienced and best funded of our opponents in Afghanistan, such as the Pakistani-sponsored Haqqani network, would presumably have great difficulty in pulling off such an operation without considerable assistance.
It seems likely that the special forces of a professional army planned the raid, and trained, advised, and led the raiders — that is if they did not actually take part in it. Those special forces would, of course, be those of Pakistan.
This may sound shocking but it would hardly be the first time that Pakistani special forces have operated in Afghanistan on behalf of Islamabad’s allies and proxies. Before the current conflict you would often hear Pakistani officials and soldiers boast of the active military role their troops played in the defeat of the Soviet Union, and how their special forces — some of them U.S.-trained — crossed the border in force and fought alongside, or disguised as the Mujehaddin.
The history of Pakistani regular and elite troops donning civilian garb to fight the country’s enemy on foreign territory actually goes back all the way to the country’s independence. In 1947, the Pathan tribesmen who invaded Kashmir in an attempt to seize it from Indian control included many Pakistani army officers who had officially gone on leave.
This kind of deniable black or grey operation became a specialty of the Pakistan’s elite military and intelligence units. And it has long been an open secret that elements of Pakistan’s Inter-Service-Intelligence have carried out or arranged terrorist attacks in Afghanistan (including the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul) and sponsored two of the government’s most dangerous and ideologicaly extreme foes: the Haqqani network and the Hezb-e Islami militia controlled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Moreover, a number of Pakistani officers have been killed (much to Islamabad’s fury) when U.S. forces fired back at Taliban troops apparently using Pakistani positions on the border.
The only thing that would be entirely surprising about Pakistani involvement in the Bastion operation is its unprecedented scale and daring. Never before has the United States’ supposed ally and secret enemy gone so far in its efforts to spill American rather than Afghan blood. That they could be willing to do so now would be another testament to the fury in the Pakistani military establishment about the U.S. operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
As is well known, there has been no Pakistani uproar about or serious investigation into the mysterious, indeed scandalous presence of Osama in Abbottabad; but there has been both about the humiliating success of the U.S. incursion. The Pentagon would have been naïve not to expect some form of revenge by a military establishment whose pride and public standing has been so badly wounded, and whose familiarity with its American benefactors makes it a dangerous enemy.
As a vengeance attack by Rawalpindi, one designed to highlight American vulnerability and Pakistani strength, the Bastion raid is all the more disturbing because it would never have been carried out unless Pakistan were confident that it would face no serious come-back. So if Pakistan or its proxies were indeed responsible for the raid, it is yet another sign that our foolishly announced pull-out of Afghanistan has, as predicted, heralded a shrinkage of American power and influence in the region, demoralized our allies, and emboldened our enemies.