US and Pakistan enter the danger zone
By M K Bhadrakumar
The air strike by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at the
Pakistani military post at Salala in the Mohmand Agency on the Afghan-Pakistan
border Friday night is destined to become a milestone in the chronicle of the
Within hours of the incident, Pakistan's relations with the US began
nose-diving and it continues to plunge. NATO breached the ''red line''.
What is absolutely stunning about the statement issued by Pakistan's Defence
Committee of the Cabinet (DDC), which met Saturday at Islamabad under the
chairmanship of Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani is that it did not bother to call
for an inquiry by the
US or NATO into the air strike that resulted in the death of 28 Pakistani
Exactly what happened in the fateful night of Friday - whether the NATO
blundered into a mindless retaliatory (or pre-emptive) act or ventured into a
calculated act of high provocation - will remain a mystery. Maybe it is no more
important to know, since blood has been drawn and innocence lost, which now
becomes the central point.
At any rate, the DDC simply proceeded on the basis that this was a calculated
air strike - and by no means an accidental occurrence. Again, the DDC statement
implies that in the Pakistan military's estimation, the NATO attack emanated
from a US decision. Pakistan lodged a strong protest at the NATO Headquarters
in Brussels but that was more for purpose of 'record', while the "operative"
part is directed at Washington.
The GHQ in Rawalpindi would have made the assessment within hours of the Salala
incident that the US is directly culpable. The GHQ obviously advised the DDC
accordingly and recommended the range of measures Pakistan should take by way
of what Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani publicly called an
The DDC took the following decisions: a) to close NATO's transit routes through
Pakistani territory with immediate effect; b) to ask the US to vacate Shamsi
airbase within 15 days; c) to "revisit and undertake a complete review" of all
"programs, activities and cooperative arrangements" with US, NATO and the
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), including in "diplomatic,
political and intelligence" areas; d) to announce shortly a whole range of
further measures apropos Pakistan's future cooperation with US, NATO and ISAF.
No more doublespeak
The response stops short of declaring the termination of Pakistan's
participation in the US-led war in Afghanistan (which, incidentally, is the
demand by Pakistani politician Imran Khan who is considered to be close to the
Pakistani military circles). In essence, however, Pakistan is within inches of
The closure of the US-NATO transit routes through Pakistan territory may not
immediately affect the coalition forces in Afghanistan, as it has built up
reserve stocks that could last several weeks. But the depletion of the reserves
would cause anxiety if the Pakistani embargo is prolonged, which cannot be
Therefore, the Pakistani move is going to affect the NATO operations in
Afghanistan, since around half the supplies for US-NATO troops still go via
Pakistan. An alternative for the US and NATO will be to rely more on the
transit routes of the Northern Distribution Network [NDN]. But the US and
NATO's dependence on the NDN always carried a political price tag - Russia's
Moscow is agitated about the US regional policies. The NATO intervention in
Libya caused friction, which deepened the Russian angst over the US's perceived
lack of seriousness to regard it as equal partner and its cherry-picking or
Then, there are other specific issues that agitate Moscow: US's push for
"regime change" in Syria, the US and NATO appearance in the Black Sea region,
continued deployment of US missile defense system, and the push for US military
bases in Afghanistan. In addition, Moscow has already begun circling wagons
over the US "New Silk Road" initiative and its thrust into Central Asia.
The future of the US-Russia reset remains uncertain. Washington barely
disguises its visceral dislike of the prospect of Vladimir Putin's return to
the Kremlin following the presidential election in March next year. Short of
bravado, the US and NATO should not brag that they have the NDN option up their
sleeve in lieu of the Pakistani transit routes. The Pakistani military knows
Equally, the closure of the Shamsi airbase can hurt the US drone operations.
Pakistan has so far turned a blind eye to the drone attacks, even conniving
with them. Shamsi, despite the US's insistence that drone operations were
conducted from bases in Afghanistan, surely had a significant role in terms of
intelligence back-up and logistical support.
By demanding that the US vacate Shamsi, Pakistan is possibly shifting its
stance on the drone attacks; its doublespeak may be ending. Pakistan is
''strengthening'' its air defense on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Future US
drone operations may have to be conducted factoring in the possibility that
Pakistan might regard them as violations of its air space. The US is on
slippery ground under international law and the United Nations Charter.
A Persian response
The big issue is how Pakistan proposes to continue with its cooperation with
the US-NATO operations. Public opinion is leaning heavily toward dissociating
with the US-led war. The government's announcement on the course of relations
with the US/NATO/ISAF can be expected as early as next week. The future of the
war hangs by a thread.
Unlike during previous phases of US-Pakistan tensions Washington lacks a
"Pakistan hand" to constructively engage Islamabad. The late Richard Holbrooke,
former special AfPak envoy, has become distant memory and special
representative Marc Grossman has not been able to step into his shoes.
Admiral Mike Mullen has retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is
now a 'burnt-out case' embroiled in controversies with the Pakistani military.
Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus isn't terribly popular in
Islamabad after his stint leading the US Central Command, while his predecessor
as spy chief and now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta always remained a distant
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a charming politician, but certainly
not cut out for the role of networking with the Pakistani generals at the
operational level. She could perhaps offer a healing touch once the bleeding
wound is cleansed of dirt, stitched up and bandaged. And US President Barack
Obama, of course, never cared to establish personal chemistry with a Pakistani
leader, as he would with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Now, who could do that in Washington? The horrible truth is - no one. It is a
shocking state of affairs for a superpower with over 100,000 troops deployed
out there in the tangled mountains in Pakistan's vicinity. There has been a
colossal breakdown of diplomacy at the political, military and intelligence
Washington trusted former Pakistani ambassador Hussein Haqqani almost as its
own special envoy to Islamabad, but he has been summarily replaced under
strange circumstances - probably, for the very same reason. At the end of the
day, an intriguing question keeps popping up: Can it be that Pakistan is simply
not interested anymore in dialoguing with the Obama administration?
The heart of the matter is that the Pakistani citadel has pulled back the
bridges leading to it from across the surrounding crocodile-infested moat. This
hunkering down is going to be Obama's key problem. Pakistan is boycotting the
Bonn Conference II on December 2. This hunkering down should worry the US more
than any Pakistani military response to the NATO strike.
The US would know from the Iranian experience that it has no answer for the
sort of strategic defiance that an unfriendly nation resolute in its will to
resist can put up against an 'enemy' it genuinely considers 'satanic'.
The Pakistani military leadership is traditionally cautious and it is not going
to give a military response to the US's provocation. (Indeed, the Taliban are
always there to keep bleeding the US and NATO troops.)
Washington may have seriously erred if the intention Friday night was to draw
out the Pakistani military into a retaliatory mode and then to hit it with a
sledgehammer and make it crawl on its knees pleading mercy. Things aren't going
to work that way. Pakistan is going to give a "Persian" response.
The regional situation works in Pakistan's favor. The recent Istanbul
conference (November 2) showed up Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran sharing a
platform of opposition to the US bases in Afghanistan in the post-2014 period.
The Obama administration's grandiose scheme to transform the 89-year period
ahead as 'America's Pacific Century' makes Pakistan a hugely important partner
for China. At the very minimum, Russia has stakes in encouraging Pakistan's
strategic autonomy. So does Iran.
None of these major regional powers wants the deployment of the US missile
defense system in the Hindu Kush and Pakistan is bent on exorcising the region
of the military presence of the US and its allies. That is also the real
meaning of Pakistan's induction as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization, which is on the cards.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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