NATO helicopter gunships recently made an incursion into Pakistani territory, pursuing Taliban fighters who had conducted an attack in Afghanistan and fled back into Pakistan, believing themselves to be safe there. They were mistaken, and they paid for their underestimation of NATO’s willingness to hunt them down with their lives. Pakistan protested.
The problem is that if the Pakistanis cannot curtail free movement by the Taliban across their border with Afghanistan, then NATO is going to have to do it for them. It is plain and simple: the U.S. cannot win in Afghanistan until the Taliban is denied safe harbor. So the missile and gunship attacks into Pakistan must continue, not only to deny the Taliban their sense of impunity along the border, but also to make it clear to Pakistan that NATO will no longer tolerate an open border.
How much can change in only a few days.
Early Thursday, local time, there was an incident. As of yet, the reports are unclear as to what exactly transpired. It has been reported that NATO helicopters traveling inside Pakistani airspace while engaging militants firing mortars into Afghanistan were fired on by Pakistani forces in what has been termed “warning shots.” The NATO aircraft, reported to be American Apaches, returned fire, inflicting casualties on the Pakistani forces. While there has been no confirmation of a friendly fire incident by either the United States Government or by the NATO military command in Afghanistan, it has been obliquely substantiated by a NATO statement offering “sincere condolences to the Pakistani military and the families of those who were killed or injured.”
If these facts prove accurate, this is a most unfortunate event, with lessons to be learned by both sides. Clearly, better communication, leading to increased situational awareness as to the location of each other’s forces, might have served to avert this incident. Further, the wisdom of Pakistan firing warning shots towards powerful friendly aircraft that are engaged in battle with hostile ground forces is something to be carefully reconsidered. Beyond the specifics of this incident, however, are the rather serious consequences: Pakistan has shut down one of the two routes through its territory that NATO uses to provide overland supply to its forces in Afghanistan. It must be recalled that NATO is currently waging an offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan, and now is an awkward time to cope with a supply disruption.
The loss of the supply route through Pakistan’s territory is serious, but not fatal. NATO can continue to sustain its forces in Afghanistan, though at greater cost and inconvenience. More to the point, however, is the fact that this incident threatens to crack open the tense relationship between Islamabad and Washington. Pakistan is a nation with serious internal divisions, with the military, civilian government and intelligence service all pursuing their own, not always compatible, agendas. The result in a hydra-headed beast of a country that is both our ally and enemy.
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