Why did the U.S. attack?

December 5, 2011

Snehal Shingavi reports on the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO military assault--and the politics and military aims behind Washington's not-so-secret war.

GUNFIRE FROM NATO helicopters killed 24 Pakistani soldiers November 25 in Mohmand Province near the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in an attack on a military outpost that highlights the deep split between the Pakistani and U.S. governments over the war in Afghanistan.

NATO officials made contradictory claims about the attack--that it was a strategic error, but also that they had the go-ahead from the Pakistani leadership for the strike. Both of these claims were different from the original story--that NATO forces were fired on from across the Pakistani border. Accusations are also flying in Pakistan itself that there may have been communication between Pakistan and NATO forces approving the strike.

What's impossible to believe, though, is that NATO forces--that is, the U.S. military-- didn't know that they were targeting Pakistani military installations during a two-hour-long firefight.

U.S. and NATO forces have been collaborating for a full decade over the war in Afghanistan, and it seems fantastical to suggest that NATO doesn't know where Pakistani military outposts are located. Pakistani officials have called the attack "blatant"; American and NATO officials are still tight-lipped about specifics.

Protesters march in Pakistan against U.S. military attacks
Protesters march in Pakistan against U.S. military attacks

While it may take some time before the truth of the story emerges, the consequences have been dramatic for the Pakistani-American alliance, which was already ailing.

The U.S. has been regularly killing men, women and children in Pakistan through drone aircraft strikes targeting alleged Taliban fighters. The Pakistani government typically has denied knowledge of these attacks and downplayed them as tragic accidents. But by killing Pakistani soldiers in a helicopter attack, the U.S. crossed a line.

Thus, the Pakistani government reacted almost immediately to the latest deadly air strike, announcing a review of all ties with the U.S., suspension of NATO supply lines through Pakistan, and the imposition of a 15-day deadline on the U.S. to vacate the Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan--from which the U.S. conducts its drone operations in the region.

Pakistan also withdrew from the much-touted Bonn diplomatic conference, which was supposed to bring together parties throughout the region to hammer out the details of a future Afghanistan. Pakistan's withdrawal meant that the Taliban's representatives didn't appear for the conference either.

This puts American hopes for a political solution to the insurgency in Afghanistan in some jeopardy, since the close ties between the Taliban and Pakistan were supposed to help bring the Taliban to the table.

THE IMPACT that this will have on NATO operations in Afghanistan is still hard to estimate. Gareth Porter, a historian and investigative journalist, claims that America's war in Afghanistan has been "thrown into confusion," and documents just how deep the cover-up of the details of the raid go.

Unfortunately, though, the more meticulous the accounting of NATO's foreknowledge becomes, the more difficult it becomes to see the logic behind it. Some are already speculating that the motives for the U.S. attack include a complete destabilization of Pakistan itself.

The strikes have also, predictably, produced some substantial saber-rattling from the Pakistani military, which was already humiliated last year when the U.S. operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden demonstrated the complete failure of Pakistani military intelligence. In response to the attack, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has authorized all Pakistani soldiers to respond to any future U.S./NATO aggression with "full force," without waiting for authorization from the high command.

Islamist organizations inside of Pakistan have also been strengthened, as anti-U.S. and NATO rallies across Pakistan were organized by a number of far-right organizations, including the banned Jamaat ud-Dawa and Jamaat-e-Islami. The cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan's centrist Tehreek-e-Insaaf party has also been a part of many of these anti-incursion protests, but the Islamists have definitely attempted to use the anti-American sentiment generated by the strikes to their advantage.

Inside of Pakistan, though, the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has been rocked by the recent revelation that Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Hussain Haqqani, attempted to approach Adm. Mike Mullen to ask the U.S. to help the Pakistani government put pressure on Pakistan's own military. In exchange, Pakistan offered support for the U.S. campaign against the Taliban's Haqqani network, as well as the Inter Service Intelligence agency, which has longstanding connections with the Taliban on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In making this overture to the U.S., Haqqani was most likely operating on orders from President Asif Ali Zardari, who is said to fear a military coup. However, both the ambassador and prime minister denied any knowledge of a memo in which the details of the proposed deal were spelled out.

WHAT THIS entire episode has revealed are the fault lines in both the Pakistani and the American strategies for long-term security in the region. Neither country seems to have a workable strategy for Afghanistan. The fact that they are working at cross-purposes only compounds what would be a farcical game of realpolitik if there weren't so many deadly consequences. The U.S. drone attacks have already killed hundreds of civilians.

In Pakistan, there has long been a debate about the relationship between U.S. interests in the region and Pakistan's regional ambitions. The weakness of the civilian government has meant that it has to rely heavily on U.S. aid for both its military and development strategies. This has meant that American interests have tended to dominate over Pakistani interests when it comes government policy.

At the same time, the close ties between industrialists in Pakistan and the Pakistani military means that the ruling class always has an alternative to dealing with the elected government. The military's long-term objectives are not the same as the civilian government's, especially since it sees an Afghanistan led by Hamid Karzai as potentially too close to India.

The Pakistan military under former Gen. Pervez Musharraf--who seized power in a coup--was willing to do the American's bidding. But after Musharraf was forced from office by large protests in Pakistan and pressure from Washington, the U.S. shifted its largesse to the civilian government.

However, civilian governments in Pakistan have always been a junior partner to the military, which has spent more time out of the barracks running the country than not. Currently, political forces close to the military once again sense their advantage. It would be hard not to imagine a plan for replacing the Zardari government. Rumors of a military or a judicial coup are already filling the news channels in Pakistan.

This contradiction inside of Pakistan is worsened by the contradiction in U.S. foreign policy in the region. On the one hand, the American empire relies on Pakistan for intelligence and resources in the war on terror. But everything that the war requires to succeed puts Pakistan directly in the path of Washington's fire. It is not simply militants crossing the border that worries NATO, but also the ability of Pakistan's military to influence forces inside Afghanistan.

As a result, two factions have emerged within the U.S. foreign policy establishment with respect to Pakistan. The first, which believes that Pakistan is "too nuclear to fail," believes that constructive engagement with the civilian government is a necessary part of U.S. foreign policy. The second, now most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain, sees Pakistan as part of the problem and wants to ratchet up the rhetoric about taking action. Calls for this will likely be a major part of the Republican presidential campaign in the U.S.

More importantly, though, what has come to the fore is the absurdity of U.S. and NATO designs inside of Afghanistan and the total venality of the leadership in Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan necessarily produces "collateral damage" in Pakistan. Thus the Pakistani elite can fatten their bellies, in large part due to U.S. aid, while their own population is bombed by U.S. forces.

The toll of a continued U.S. occupation of Afghanistan for ordinary people throughout the region is immense.

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