Tit for Tat? Militant Response to NATO Incursions
Weekly Pulse
October 8-14, 2010
Since Pakistan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are partners in the War on Terror, Pakistan’s response to recent NATO incursions in its tribal areas, in which three of its soldiers also died, was the closure of Torkham, one of the two border crossing points for NATO supplies into Afghanistan, for “security reasons.” Otherwise, had it been India attempting such hot pursuit into Pakistani territory, the incident might have resulted in another military confrontation between South Asia’s arch nuclear rivals.

However, within days of this tragic event, as the United States and its NATO military allies began the tenth year of their war in Afghanistan on October 7, the dust appeared to be settling down. The alleged presence of insurgent safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been a lingering issue in recent years, and it has often caused bitterness in Pakistan’s ties with US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. However, whenever such tensions have surfaced in the nine-year long war between the two sides, their sources are preferably tackled by their civilian and military leaders through apt diplomacy. The same appears to have happened this time.

Pakistan is a key supply route for fuel, military vehicles, spare parts, clothing and other non-lethal supplies for close to 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. The United States and NATO at one point sent some 80 percent of their non-lethal supplies through Pakistan into landlocked Afghanistan, but have been steadily reducing that number, instead using Central Asian routes to the north and other means. It is estimated that about 40 percent of supplies now come through Pakistan, 40 percent through the Central Asian routes, and 20 percent by air.

Most of the 580 daily truckloads of supplies and fuel for NATO troops fighting the Afghan Taliban cross at Torkham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s border with Afghanistan. The rest enters Afghanistan through the Chaman crossing point in Balochistan. Thus, Pakistan provides crucial help to NATO’s war effort in Afghanistan, since the supply route it offers is relatively more cost effective. The US and NATO will, in other words, remain considerably dependent upon Pakistan as long as the war in Afghanistan continues.

Pakistan had decided to shut down the Torkham crossing point when three soldiers of the Frontier Corps were killed as NATO helicopters attacked a security checkpoint in the Kurram Agency on September 30. The incident was followed by attacks on NATO trucks and tankers across the country. Taliban have claimed responsibility for most of these attacks, which close to a hundred of these vehicles were set ablaze,

On October 1, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in a speech at the National Assembly demanded an apology from the NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan for repeated violations of Pakistan’s airspace by their helicopters and said that his government would go beyond “diplomatic condemnation” and use “other options” if cross-border strikes continued. “We have cooperation in the war on terror…it doesn’t mean we have sold out our sovereignty and integrity,” he said.

Before the row between Pakistan and NATO could intensify further, General David Petraeus, the US Commander in Afghanistan, "called Pakistani Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and expressed his sincere regrets over the death of Pakistani soldiers." On October 4, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen apologized for the incident. “I expressed my regret for the incident last week in which Pakistani soldiers lost their lives,” he said after meeting Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Brussels. The Secretary-General also hoped that “the border will be open for supplies as soon as possible.”

The official justification that Pakistan has offered for the closure of Torkham crossing point is that there is security threat to NATO supplies through Pakistan, as indicated by an upsurge in militant attacks on the trucks and tankers carrying these supplies. On October 5, Prime Minister Gillani said the government would allow NATO forces’ fuel and other supplies to continue after “security clearance,” since NATO Secretary-General had apologized for violating Pakistan’s air space and killing its security personnel.

NATO’s incursions in Pakistan’s tribal areas have occurred at a time when US drone strikes in its North Waziristan agency have intensified, claiming scores of militant lives, including Al-Qaeda's operations head for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sheikh Fateh al-Misri. The drone attacks are highly controversial, perceived by majority Pakistanis as a violation of their sovereignty. However, it is generally believed that there exists some tacit understanding between Pakistan and the United States on the issue.

After all, it was a drone attack that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the terrorist organization responsible for most of the death and mayhem in the country since the summer of 2007, including the killing of over 3,000 soldiers and over 10,000 civilians. However, when it comes to helicopter attacks, such as the one conducted by NATO, or a couple of instances of ground assaults by US forces, neither the civilian government nor the security establishment of the country can afford to ignore them for the obvious reason that the international mandate for security operations by US and NATO forces is limited to the insurgency-hit Afghanistan alone.

The drone attacks, as stated above, are a separate issue. The United States and Pakistan have a broader strategic engagement that has expanded over time. The drone, nonetheless, remains the trickiest issue to be sorted out within the framework of this growing relationship. The primary US frustration with Pakistan is that it is not opening the North Waziristan front, which allegedly provides the bulk of cross-border insurgent support from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Pakistan’s explanation in this context is that as long as its security forces are engaged in fighting Taliban insurgents elsewhere in tribal areas, it cannot afford to start the North Waziristan offensive.

The situation becomes more complicated with parallel developments pertaining to behind-the-scene efforts to bring about reconciliation in Afghanistan, in which the role of the leadership of the Haqqani network based in North Waziristan could be crucial. The Haqqani network, allegedly responsible for fueling Afghan insurgency, is supported by two tribal militant groups led by Mullah Nazir and Maulvi Gul Bahadur, who may have indirectly helped Pakistani security forces rout the TTP from South Waziristan agency. Just like any other counter-insurgency forces, the preference of Pakistani security establishment will always be to get rid of its main enemy—TTP in this case. That Pakistani army, besides continued vigilance against India and the unabated campaign against TTP and its terrorist affiliates, including al-Qaeda, had to engage in a massive rescue and relief effort after the flood disaster struck the country in late July may also be a dissuading factor insofar as the opening of the North Waziristan front is concerned.

However, as we have seen several times in the past nine years of Afghan war that differences of approach do arise between the United States and Pakistan over counter-terrorism issues, but the two countries prefer to get closer to each other’s position through intensive interaction between their top civilian and military leaders. Likewise, NATO and Pakistan have significantly expanded political dialogue and practical cooperation in recent years, in particular with regard to the shared objective of bringing security and stability to Afghanistan.

The growing NATO-Pakistan military-to-military cooperation in the context of Afghanistan is reflected in the work of the Tripartite Commission, a joint forum on military and security issues which brings together representatives from the NATO-led ISAF operation, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This Commission meets regularly at various levels and is used to exchange views, as well as to discuss security matters of mutual concern. Its four main areas of cooperation are intelligence sharing, border security, countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and initiatives relating to information operations.

This is besides the regular interaction between Pakistani and NATO leadership, especially in the security domain. NATO has agreed to let representatives of the Pakistan Army to travel to Kabul and be part of its probe into the recent incidents of NATO incursions into Pakistani tribal areas, especially the one killing three FC soldiers. Now that the NATO Secretary-General has apologies over the tragic incident, we can hope that the bitterness it may have caused between the two essential partners in the international campaign against terrorism in the region will be over soon, and the crucial logistical supplies for foreign troops in Afghanistan will resume unhampered.

Al-Qaeda and its terrorist partners in the region are surely interested in sabotaging this crucial supply route for the international forces in Afghanistan. NATO supplies may also be benefiting the Pakistani economy. However, when it comes to preserving Pakistani sovereignty against foreign military incursions that especially result in the death of Pakistani soldiers, the issue becomes very serious. The NATO leadership should be duly conscious of the fact that through such irresponsible acts, whatever security justification for them may be, the Alliance will only enrage the very people whose hearts and minds it must win if it wants to succeed in Afghanistan, on which depends its entire international security engagement in the 21st century.