Breaking Backs: NATO And Pakistan – OpEd


It was the affirmation, and for Pakistan, surely a confirmation about their rump status as a sovereign state before the military interventions of NATO. Twenty four slain Pakistani soldiers over the weekend speak of that, and the response from the military has proven tense. ‘[The Americans] demonstrate complete disregard for international law and human life, and are in stark violation of Pakistani sovereignty,’ complained Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar in a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Pakistan’s army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani is under enormous pressure to take stern measures, notably by the anti-American segment of mid-level officers. Boycotts are being planned over meetings on the fate of Afghanistan to take place in Germany, and Pakistan’s absence from any meeting will make any solution, however unlikely as it seems, impossible. In the short term, measures such as a notice of eviction to US forces from the Shamsi air base in southwest Baluchistan, used to launch drone attacks, and closing the border to NATO supplies to Afghanistan, have been implemented.

No one in this dysfunctional, abusive relationship can be trusted, and the parties, like suspicious lovers, can’t get enough of it. ‘Pakistan needs American aid and diplomatic support but has shown no willingness to listen to American requests to fight insurgents who use the border as a staging area to carry out attacks inside Afghanistan’ (Reuters, Nov 30). An article extracted in Time (Nov 29) reiterates the line. ‘A complete breakdown in the US-Pakistani relationship seems unlikely, and both sides show that more is at stake than ever before.’

US and Afghan forces claimed they received mortar and small arms fire, which necessitated a retaliatory strike with helicopters that continued even after Pakistani pleas to stop. The Pakistani forces themselves may well have believed they were being targeted by Taliban forces, though details of this are sketchy.

A few commentators have already made up their mind on the incident. Long term student of Pakistani politics Tariq Ali has called it deliberate. ‘NATO commanders have long been supplied with maps marking these checkpoints by the Pakistani military. They knew that the target was a military outpost. The explanation that they were fired on first rings false and has been ferociously denied by Islamabad’ (Counterpunch, Nov 29). No less a person than Maj Gen Ashfaq Nadeem, director general of Pakistan’s military operations, has also called the attack a ‘deliberate act of aggression’.

This costly incident has been labeled a regrettable case of friendly fire by US officials, a most nonsensical term if ever there was one. The only term more absurd is that of ‘frenemy’ which is bandied about in the case of Pakistan because of its soft and even complicit stance, to militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Indeed, the Pakistani military have every reason to feel more bitter for this lethal faux pas by their problematic and powerful friend, given the casualties it has suffered in combating insurgents who transit to Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces. The Bonn rebuke may simply be nothing more than that, a scolding gesture brimming with disgust, but Washington is doing itself no favours. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner’s reaction to the entire crisis was one of understatement. ‘We are facing a difficult situation, a difficult challenge.’

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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