By Kerim Rached
According to military officials quoted by Pakistani state television, last Friday night on November 25, an incident involving U.S.-led ISAF forces occurred at two military checkpoints in the tribal Mohmand Agency region on the border with Afghanistan which left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead and around fourteen wounded.
Official statements from the U.S. and ISAF, both operating in the region under the wider NATO umbrella, confirm that a joint unit comprised of U.S. special forces and Afghan commandos had called in airstrikes on two campsites when they were in the process of conducting anti-terrorist operations in the rugged terrain of the Afghan-Pakistani border, along which demarcations are not always clear.
ISAF Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson (Germany), speaking to BBC, stated that “A situation developed on the ground that caused the force to call in for close air support, which came in and obviously this caused Pakistani casualties and that is what has to be investigated at the moment.”
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal on the condition of anonymity, a Western official in Kabul described the incident in more detail by claiming “They [ISAF units] were fired on from a Pakistani army base. It was a defensive action.” Three Afghan officials in the capital, also speaking in the same manner, added that Pakistani authorities had been informed of the mission prior to it taking place. They further stated that Afghan army soldiers were being fired upon when they requested further support. These claims have not yet been officially corroborated by U.S. or ISAF officials.
Contrary to these claims, the Pakistani military stated that most of its soldiers caught in the friendly fire, about 25 in each of the two camps, were sleeping at the time of the attacks, which involved both assault helicopter and jet strikes and lasted over an hour.
Pakistani Army spokesperson Major General Athar Abbas has strongly rejected any case of mistaken identity in the incident, insisting that allied forces are well-informed of the locations of Pakistani installations in the region. Speaking to English-language Indian TV channel CNN-IBN, he stated “There is no justification, we do not accept this reason as ‘these posts were not marked,’ they are old posts, it’s not a new post, and they are supposed to be marked on the helicopters’ map—pilots’ [map].” He had also claimed that the allied forces continued their attack while ignoring the pleas of their Pakistani counterparts to cease fire.
U.S. and NATO officials have tried to calm the tension, currently quite apparent with protests still raging in Pakistan over the incident, by immediately stating their commitment to a full investigation of what had transpired during the episode. While friendly fire incidents have previously occurred within Pakistani borders, this most recent case is by far the most notable in terms of casualties.
In an expression of regret rejected by the Pakistani military, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (Denmark) wrote to Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani calling what took place a “tragic unintended incident” and pledged his full support to the ISAF investigation currently underway, but stopped short of accepting responsibility by NATO. U.S. General and Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, speaking to British ITV News, also said “They [the Pakistanis] have reason to be furious that they have 24 soldiers that are dead, and that ordinance that killed them was the ordinance of a partner.”
On November 26, the Defense Committee of the Pakistani Cabinet, chaired by the Pakistani Prime Minister, immediately responded to the incident by cutting off border crossings vital to NATO’s supply lines to Afghanistan, through which nearly half of all cargo required by the military coalition passes. It was also made clear that the United States is expected to vacate the Shamsi airbase, from which supposedly many drone attacks in particular are initiated, within fifteen days.
The Shamsi airbase has actually been leased by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates since 1992, which subleased it in a sense to the U.S. military following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. On November 28, Foreign Minister of the UAE Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan had his request to extend the fifteen-day deadline given to the United States turned down by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
While U.S. President Barack Obama has yet to publicly address the issue, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has said “We mourn those brave Pakistani service members that lost their lives,” in addition to making clear the importance the U.S. attaches to its relationship with Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the ramifications of this incident may lead the United States and Pakistan to reevaluate the level of their military ties and possibly already-strained relationship as a whole, particularly with both sides having taken firmly differing positions on the issue of a formal apology. Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik elaborated on his administration’s retaliatory measures taken thus far by stating that the Pakistani obstruction of fuel and other supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan is not a temporary suspension, but a permanent measure. Major General Abbas remarked that “The latest episode has deeply impacted the progress made by the two countries in improving bilateral relations, forcing Pakistan to revisit its current terms of engagement with the United States.”
It is, however, possible that ultimately the current U.S.-Pakistani mutual interdependence that various strategic interests by both parties necessitate will only be diminished rather than completely severed. Whether this dynamic will change before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, planned to be completed by the end of 2014, is of great importance to both political and military decision makers.
How this ISAF operation, which involved mostly U.S. and Afghan nationals, will effect Pakistani relations with other NATO members is yet to be seen. It is possible that individual allied countries may take different approaches, if any, from one another toward the issue. The foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Germany have already reiterated to Pakistan their support of a full and thorough investigation of the matter and expressed their condolences.
While U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Deputy Spokesperson Eduardo del Buey has said there has not been any Security Council or General Assembly resolution regarding the situation as of yet, Pakistan is in the process of making its complaints and condemnations of the incident formally known in both bodies.
Most recently on November 29, Pakistan declared it will be boycotting the important Bonn conference on Afghanistan in Germany this coming weekend, which considering the country’s crucial significance in the fight against terrorism, will deprive the meeting of a very key participant.