Was the Attack on Pakistani Outposts Deliberate?: How Far Will the US Go to Target Pakistan's Military?

Islamabad — This past June I posted an article by Anatol Lieven on Facebook. For those who are not familiar with his name, Anatol is from the UK and numbers among the few journalists whom I always enjoy reading. I have met Anatol a few times and he is the kind of person who likes to get acquainted with the psycho-social environment of the people he writes about. Written in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s execution, Anatol’s article was critical of the US approach to the region, particularly Pakistan.

Among those responding to this post was an American whom I would rather not embarrass by naming; so let’s just call him X. Admitting that he hadn’t read through Anatol’s article and was judging its contents by earlier articles of the author, he went on to add, “let me put this as simply as possible, for you to understand. The US has concluded that the Pakistan army is part of the problem, not the solution; and that the interests of the Pakistan army are not identical with those of Pakistan. Consequently, the US has decided that the Pakistan army has to be cut to size and, if in the process of doing so, the Pakistan army is destroyed, so be it. And, I agree”.

The first thing that hit me was the arrogance of his statement. The “US has decided (on behalf of, and for, the people of Pakistan) that its army’s interests and theirs are not identical”, and will, on behalf of, and for Pakistan, cut its army to size! Typical arrogance expected of the American establishment. The only issue was that this American had hitherto seemed pretty level-headed and very far from arrogant. Nor was he a Mansoor Ijaz or even an expatriate American. I commented on the arrogance of his words, to which he chose not to respond. However, I did not take the contents of his comment very seriously; not at that time.

The “Memo-gate” Scandal

Most readers will be familiar with this scandal, so I will cover just the bare outline of the incident from my perspective. On October 10th, Mansoor Ijaz, a multi millionaire American of Pakistani origin, wrote an op-ed for the Financial Times which, as it was expected to do, set Pakistan’s political landscape on fire.

His op-ed titled, “Time to take on Pakistan’s Jihadist spies”, as the title indicates, ostensibly seemed to target the ISI and the Pakistan military for maintaining ties with Jihadists. However, it mentioned the fact that in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s execution, he was contacted by a “senior diplomat”, who was known to be close to Pakistani President, Zardari. Apparently, Zardari feared the possibility of a military coup. Everybody knew that the senior Pakistani diplomat referred to Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US.

Smoldering ruin of border outpost inside Pakistan attacked by US helicopters. 24 Pakistani soldiers died here and at a secondSmoldering ruin of a border outpost inside Pakistan attacked by US helicopter gunships. 24 Pakistani soldiers were slaughtered here and at a second mountaintop outpost in an unprovoked and clearly coordinated US massacre

They had, between the two of them drafted a memo requesting US President Obama’s help by asking Admiral Mullen to warn off the Pakistani army chief, Gen Kiyani and, in return Zardari would put in place a “new security team” of Obama’s choice, close down the “S” Wing of the ISI, which was responsible for Strategic Ops, including maintaining links with the Haqqani Network. Ijaz hinted at the fact that the memo promised much more.

All hell broke loose in Pakistan with everybody denying knowledge of everything, including Admiral Mullen. Accusations flew back and forth, till Mullen regained his memory and Gen James Jones confirmed that he had conveyed the memo to Mullen. Then the actual Memo appeared on the blog of the prestigious Journal, Foreign Policy!

To the horror of all Pakistanis, their worst fears proved true. Between Zardari and Haqqani, the two had even been prepared to compromise on Pakistan’s holiest of “holy cows”; the nuclear program!

Haqqani was sacked; Zardari sorely troubled.

But Mansoor Ijaz wasn’t done yet. In another op-ed, he asserted that the Zardari-Haqqani duo had advance notice of US intention to execute Osama bin Laden on May 2nd! But this was in early December; lots more transpired in between his first provocation and the last.

NATO (read US) helicopters and aircrafts attack the twin posts at Salala

On November 26th, NATO aircrafts and helicopter gunships launched an attack on the recently constructed twin-posts “Volcano” and “Boulder” in Salala region of the Mohmand Agency in Pakistan. Of the 40 soldiers, including two officers, occupying these posts, 26, including both officers, were killed and 14 wounded. Not a single soldier escaped unscathed.

These posts were constructed in September 2011, before the onset of winter about 2 ½ kilometers inside the Durand Line1 for the express purpose of preventing movement on either side of the Durand Line by Pakistani Taliban. As per international agreements, the Afghan government was informed of the intention to construct these posts and map coordinates along with specifications were provided. In the period when these posts were under construction, ISAF/NATO helicopters often kept surveillance over them from across the Durand Line to ensure these weren’t violating specifications.

Since these were “anti-infiltration” posts, they had no overhead protection nor were they equipped to respond to an air attack. The only weapon capable of effective anti-aircraft fire was an antiquated 12.7 MG. Knowing the kind of firepower that NATO/ISAF forces could retaliate with, it is preposterous to imagine that anyone at the post would engage a NATO helicopter first.

The contention that NATO helicopters were pursuing Taliban is also singularly unconvincing. Anybody who has some idea of how Taliban operate is aware that they move in ones and twos to collect at a given RV, attack and immediately disperse. Even if they intended to remain together to carry out another attack the next night, they would find a hideout in a valley; certainly not on the top of a ridge.

The final excuse presented by NATO forces for this massacre is that some Taliban probably engaged them with a rocket and, their response, resulted in the confusion. While the excuse offered is plausible but it too is given the lie by two facts: a) the manner of the attack as described by the survivors and b) we are talking about the most high-tech aircraft in the world. Would they not know exactly where the Pakistani posts are?

The survivors state that a helicopter flew over, fired a couple of flares to view them all, and then flew away. A few minutes later, some more helicopters and aircrafts appeared, kept lighting up the posts with flares, and firing at us indiscriminately. Major Mujahid tried contacting HQs but couldn’t (communication must have been jammed) and finally ordered the gunner of the 12.7 MG to retaliate. A helicopter killed the gunner with its MG fire. Mujahid took the place of the gunner, was targeted by a rocket that killed him and destroyed the 12.7. Thereafter, we were targeted individually.

Whatever excuses are offered, it was a deliberately planned massacre that ended in a Turkey shoot.

Now, the only question that arises is why?

All Pakistan is outraged at the slaughter by US helicopter gunships of 24 Pakistani border troopsAll Pakistan is outraged at the slaughter by US helicopter gunships of 24 Pakistani border troops

An Analysis

June this year, I wrote an article published under the title, “Who is gunning for Pakistan’s top generals”. I had become convinced by then that the western, particularly American mainstream, media was targeting Pakistan’s army chief and the ISI chief.

It was not till we were well into Memogate that I adverted to the comment made by X; which I referred to earlier. Could it really be true?

Let’s review the facts. Now Mansoor Ijaz, a dubious character by any standards, claims to have been the conduit in numerous negotiations on behalf of the US and Pakistan. However, the continued utility of such a conduit lies in his anonymity, certainly not his notoriety! So, apart from whatever havoc he created in Pakistan’s domestic scene, he has also ensured the termination of the one role that ensured his entry in the US corridors of power. He must have had a compelling reason to do so.

If the fire he lit was intended to tarnish the military’s image, it did succeed to a very limited extent but it back-fired far more on Pakistan’s president. Did he then go whole hog to denounce Zardari in the hope of instigating a military coup, hoping that would embarrass the military? If so, he failed again.

But one thing is beyond dispute. Ijaz is an American, with no ties, no stakes in Pakistan. With such a high profile and such high stakes in the US, he certainly can’t afford to be an agent of the ISI. On the other hand, if he is an agent of the CIA, he would be as safe as houses.

Since he, individually, may have lost something but certainly hasn’t gained anything, at least not on the face of it, he must have had some compelling reasons to expose this charade. His compulsions could not, equally certainly, be Pakistani, in origin. Whatever the source of his compulsions, they had to be American. The same would apply to Admiral Mullen’s memory loss and subsequent recovery of his memory.

Let’s move on and attempt to examine the Salala attack.

My understanding of how things work in ISAF/NATO HQ in Afghanistan is that any officer can initiate the request for a “routine” operation, based on unidentified information received. The lowest level at which such an operation can be approved is at one-star level. In routine, thereafter, this “approved” request will travel up channels; it may or may not even be seriously viewed thereafter and, very rarely is it questioned.

While I have no way of knowing exactly what happened in NATO/ISAF or Pentagon/CIA, the impression that I got from the body-language and the response of senior military personnel of ISAF/NATO/Pentagon, is that this “hit” was not sanctioned at the highest level. Certainly not by the so-called American C-in-C; maybe not by the recently appointed Chairman Joint Chiefs; and perhaps not even the Commander NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Is it possible that there are “rogue elements” within the US military which could order and execute such a massacre on their own? I think so; if this is an attack by such rogue elements; it wouldn’t be the first time and, perhaps not the last time.

But it would explain why so much time was required to “investigate” the incident. An inquiry should, in my view, not have taken more than 48 hours to find out what happened and who was responsible; OK, if they’re slow and very meticulous, let’s say one week. By no stretch of imagination should it require four weeks!

Unless, the Chairman immediately realized what had really happened and the need for wasting time; time for things to cool down a little; time to discover whose ass was exposed; whose to cover and who, if anyone, was to be hung out to dry!

I am convinced that the Pakistan army, its top brass, and the ISI are being subjected to a well-planned, coordinated psychological warfare campaign; “and if in the process it (the Pakistan army) is destroyed, so be it”!

But it keeps backfiring! The attack on Salala should have destroyed the army but, while there is a seething rage within the rank and file of the army and considerable recriminations leveled at the top brass, there is also the awareness that if anyone in Pakistan is going to say NO to US demands; it won’t be the president or PM, it can only be the army chief; there are other reasons too but this is the most powerful one.

The army responded strongly, firmly, and without losing its cool; but the gloves are off now. The US is, at best, a “frenemy”; not a friend, closer to an enemy, and it is up to the US to prove otherwise. There are still critics of the army wondering, with good reason, why it did not respond to the attack, while it was in progress. The breakdown of communication is understandably responsible for this but I do not think that scrabling the Pakistan air force at that time would have helped.

In fact that might have been exactly what the person ordering the US attack on Salala might have hoped for. Consequent to an air battle with the Pakistan air force, we could well have been at war with the US. And, in that eventuality, what happened at Salala and why, might have become irrelevant.

I fear, however, that the US psy-war campaign against Pakistan army isn’t quite over yet.

On December 5th, Eli Lake, perhaps the one journalist most well connected with Pentagon/CIA wrote an article titled “America’s shadow state in Pakistan”. It’s artistically subtle in its accusations; but being Pakistani and a former soldier to boot, maybe I am biased. But very interestingly, M. K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat responded to it in his, “Why someone is blackmailing Kayani”. Now he, certainly isn’t biased, but he is bright and balanced; not a Paki-hater. Let me conclude by quoting him.

“Surely, someone in the know of things on the US’s intelligence operations in Pakistan gave him a peep into…’someone’ very special of the stature of David Petraeus….someone is softly, gently rocking Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani, suggesting it’s time to wake up from the reverie. After all, Iran just showed how to shoot down America’s latest stealth drone aircraft. And Kayani just told his men in the border with Afghanistan that they could shoot at what they want…. And Lake reminds us gently that all these deadly US inroads into the ISI’s bowels began when Kayani was heading the ISI….slips in the intriguing thought as well that Musharraf “handpicked Kayani as his replacement as Army chief ….So, the ISI’s pro-American “T-Wing” was formed during Kayani’s stewardship….Lake informs us that Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of US Joint chiefs of staff, was known back in Washington among the folks as the “Kayani whisperer”…. Why is someone in a key position in the US security establishment in Washington deliberately slandering Kayani at this point? I think, with Haqqani gone out of the loop, with President Asif Zardari probably stepping down soon….It seems increasingly that Washington has no Plan B. The setback has come as an avalanche. The Pakistan military has turned the table squarely on the US….how the US doesn’t hesitate to degrade the state structures of even its allies if American interests are involved. If this was the ruthless fate that visited ISI – an organization that is considered second only to Mossad – I shudder to think what would be the case with lesser mortals like, say, we Indians who live on vegetables and fruits. At the end of the historic “defining partnership” between US and India, will anything be left of our Bharat mata?”

SHAUKAT QADIR retired as a Brigadier from the Pakistan infantry in 1999. He was the founder, vice president and, briefly, president of a think tank. He now divides is time between teaching, studying many subjects, including journalism, and baby-sitting his grandchildren. He was a regular writer for the late Far East Economic Review, and is an occasional contributor to The National in UAE and to Pakistan’s Express Tribune. He contributed this article to ThisCantBeHappening! His personal blog is at www.ShaukatQadir.info.info