Another Very Bad Day for U.S.-Pakistan Ties

It couldn't have come at a worse time
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Protesters in Lahore chant slogans against the U.S. and NATO on Saturday / AP

Early Saturday morning, NATO helicopters opened fire on two checkpoints in the Baizai area of Mohmand, Pakistan, killing at least 24 members of the Pakistani Armed Forces. From Reuters:

A spokesman for NATO-led troops in Afghanistan confirmed that NATO aircraft had been called in to support troops in the area and had probably killed some Pakistani soldiers.

"Close air support was called in, in the development of the tactical situation, and it is what highly likely caused the Pakistan casualties," said General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). 

A few questions are in order, not the least of which is how gunships confused a couple of sleepy outposts in Pakistan with hostile forces. To be sure, "close air support" doesn't necessarily mean that ISAF (the U.S. and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan) was exchanging fire with enemy combatants. The intended target might well have been an enemy encampment separating ground forces from their objective, in which case calling for fire would have been a reasonable and necessary measure. (So long as said encampment was in Afghanistan.) As of yet those details are unavailable. What we do know is that the most important factor in close air support is "combat identification." While everyone involved plays some role in making sure air power is properly directed, it falls to the joint-terminal attack controller to issue a "cleared hot" on the right target.

Obviously, that didn't happen here.

What did happen is yet another violation of Pakistani sovereignty. This is undoubtedly accidental, but won't exactly play well in Islamabad, or the local press. After all, by way of armed drones and commando operations, the West has essentially claimed right to much of Pakistan's airspace. With relations between the U.S. and Pakistan in a perpetual state of collapse, and Pakistan's security situation deteriorating by the day, it's hard to predict what comes next, but easy to say that it won't be good. Additional internal political pressure on an already volatile nuclear regime is undesirable, to put it mildly.

The Guardian reports that "a senior western official" claims NATO acted in self-defense. This is very likely true, in as much as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is a hot zone of militant activity, much of which appears tolerated by Pakistan. Someone may well have fired at NATO forces. But one is hard pressed to make the argument that an outpost of sleeping Pakistani soldiers were engaged in such kinetic operations.

In response to the incident, Pakistan has closed routes used to usher much-needed supplies into Afghanistan. According to one report, "During the suspension period, thousands of NATO supply trucks were stranded on the ways from Pakistan to Afghanistan and hundreds of them had been attacked and torched, causing a heavy loss for the NATO troops." Meanwhile, Pakistan has issued an eviction notice to U.S. drones stationed at Shamsi Airfield in the Balochistan region, which is strategically close to the crucial border intersections of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

From here, it falls to the diplomats to smooth things over. And they have quite a job ahead of them. Pakistan may indeed by the ally from hell, but they are (however ostensibly) an ally. How long we can claim even that much remains to be seen.