Washington sends a clear message to Pakistan with attack that it had better accept the U.S.’s role in the world, in which it may do as it pleases with impunity.
Pakistan is furious at the U.S. after American forces crossed the border and conducted a military operation on Pakistani soil, prompting the Pakistani government to lodge a “strong protest” with the U.S. and declaring that it reserved the right to defend its territorial sovereignty and retaliate against any further such violations on its soil.
The attack took place in Jalal Khel, a village in South Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan and is reported to have resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people, though accounts vary.
A Taliban commander said that 15 people were killed in the attack, which he said involved three helicopters that flew troops onto Pakistani soil in a raid on the village. A Pakistani intelligence official told the New York Times that the helicopters had chased Taliban militants across the border, but that they had escaped.
The attack killed 20 people according to Owais Ahmed Ghani, the governor of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, and local residents said most victims were women and children. He called the attack “a direct assault on the sovereignty of Pakistan. And the people of Pakistan expect that the Armed Forces of Pakistan would rise to defend the sovereignty of the country and give a befitting reply to all such attacks.”
A Pakistani military spokesman, General Abbas, said seven people had been killed after U.S. forces opened fire on villagers. Locals told the BBC that at least nine bodies had been recovered from the debris after the U.S. forces bombed a house. They added that the family who lived there was not known for having links with militants.
A U.S. official told the New York Times acknowledged that several women had been killed, but said they were helping al Qaeda militants. He also acknowledged that at least one child had been killed (but declined to suggest the child, too, was a terrorist).
The Pakistani Embassy spokesman in Washington, Nadeem Kiani, said, “The intelligence was not correct and the people who have been killed are unarmed civilians, not militants, and those include women and children.” The action “was a violation of Pakistan’s territory,” he added. “Being an ally, any action taken on this side of the border should have been taken by Pakistani forces. There was a need to share that information with the Pakistani side. We do have the capacity to share intelligence, and if there is any intelligence, our forces are in a position to take action immediately.”
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry called the attack a “gross violation of Pakistan territory”. In a written statement, it said, “It is, indeed, most unfortunate that coalition/ISAF in Afghanistan have resorted to cross-border use of force against civilians.” The Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “Such actions are counterproductive and certainly do not help our joint efforts to fight terrorism. On the contrary, they undermine the very bases of cooperation and may fuel the fire of hatred and violence that we are trying to extinguish. Moreover, any attack on Pakistani territory is unacceptable and constitutes a grave provocation.”
The country’s Parliament passed resolutions condemning the attack and summoned the U.S. ambassador to lodge an official protest against the raid they say killed 15 people.
U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan are not uncommon, and its forces in Afghanistan have been known to cross the border in “hot pursuit” of militants, actions which former president Pervez Musharraf was willing to tolerate despite being strongly opposed by the Pakistani public.
But since the election of a new coalition government early this year and the resignation of Musharraf after moves to impeach him, the government of Pakistan has proven less eager to allow the U.S. to conduct military operations on its soil. And while it has stepped up its own operations against the militants, this has not appeased Washington.
What Washington apparently wants is not so much for Pakistan to combat militants, but for the new government to accept its role by recognizing the sovereignty of the U.S. in the region.
In June, a U.S. airstrike killed 11 Pakistani Frontier Corp soldiers, an action that was bitterly condemned by the government and public alike. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani responded by saying, We will take a stand for the sake of this country’s sovereignty, for the sake of its dignity and self-respect… We do not allow our territory to be used. We completely condemn this, and we will take it up through the foreign office.”
The Pentagon defended the attack as “legitimate” while the U.S. embassy issued a statement that said the U.S. “regrets” that Pakistani forces were killed in the attack after Pakistan lodged a diplomatic protest. A State Department spokesman similarly said the U.S. regretted the loss of lives while defending the action as self-defense.
Pakistan also ended an arrangement in which the U.S. would send military trainers to Pakistan to help combat militants in response to the attack.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon was considering taking unilateral action against militant forces operating in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas after Washington’s man Musharraf was forced into resignation. “The ongoing disarray among Pakistan’s new civilian leadership,” the report said, “including its refusal to accept a U.S. military training mission for the Pakistani army, has led to intense frustration within the Pentagon and reignited a debate over whether the U.S. should act on its own against extremists operating in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal regions.”
Last week, Pentagon and Pakistani military officials, including Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, met on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, ostensibly to discuss “how to combat the escalating violence along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The New York Times headline described this as a “Brainstorming” session, although the paper acknowledged that “few details” were given about “what was decided or even discussed at the meeting”.
Mullen had met with Kayani just a month prior in Islamabad, Pakistan, where Kayani was pressured to to more to combat militant forces. Aides told the Times that the carrier meeting was “less confrontational”.
That may be so, but the message was likely the same.
The message from the U.S. military’s latest attack in Pakistan is also clear. Washington has made it apparent that it rules the world and therefore may do whatever it likes, and Pakistan’s new rulers better get used to it and fall in line like their guy Musharraf did. Actually effectively combating terrorists and militants — something even officials in Washington acknowledge Musharraf hadn’t achived — isn’t so important as recognizing who makes the rules and obeying them.
Thus, when the U.S. attacks and kills 11 Pakistani soldiers in Pakistani territory, it is an act of “self-defense”. And when Pakistan responds to such actions by condemning them and, say, scuttling deals that would place U.S. military officers within Pakistan, the U.S. makes it known that it will continue to do as it pleases by threatening to escalate military operations on Pakistani soil. This threat is then carried out to show Pakistan’s leaders that the U.S. is serious.
Prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Pakistan was the Taliban’s most important benefactor. Musharraf pledged to end all support for the Taliban, accused of harboring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and cooperate with the U.S. in its “war on terrorism”. Throughout Musharraf’s rule, however, it was widely reported that elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services were still supporting militants and terrorist groups. Despite the consistent reports and allegations, Washington remained silent on the matter and repeatedly expressed support for Musharraf, who was willing to bend to the will of the Bush administration.
Indeed, less than a month following the events of 9/11, it was reported that the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was responsible for authorizing the transfer of $100,000 to hijacker Mohammed Atta. Washington’s response to this revelation was silence. An Indian reporter questioned Condoleezza Rice about the reports, and the White House censored the words “ISI chief” from the press conference transcript. Although it was reported that the FBI had worked with Indian intelligence officials to trace the origins of the money used to finance the attacks, and despite the fact that the families of victims submitted questions to the 9/11 Commission about the allegation, the 9/11 Commission was silent on the matter — in fact, its report states, without addressing the reports of ISI chief Mahmud Ahmed’s involvement, that there is no evidence of the participation of any foreign government or government agent in the attacks; and even goes so far as to say that the question of who financed the attacks is “of little practical significance”.
Musharraf’s willingness to do Washington’s bidding put him in a precarious position. He became increasingly unpopular amongst the public, and yet the Bush administration stood by him even when he suspended the constitution, declared martial law, and removed supreme court justices all in an attempt to re-consolidate his weakening grip on power. But this was a miscalculation on his part and his actions served in the long run only to weaken his position and solidify the view, both within Pakistan and internationally, that he was an illegitimate dictator opposed to democracy. His fate was sealed with the election last February of a new coalition government that opposed his rule and finally forced his resignation last month.
Now Washington has changed its tune in relations towards Pakistan.
Following the Pakistani protest against the June airstrike that killed 11 soldiers, Afghan President Hamid Karzai stepped up his own rhetoric against the Pakistan government, threatening to send Afghan forces into Pakistan. There is little doubt that in doing so he was acting as the voice of Washington. Bush backed Karzai by saying that Afghanistan’s strategy was the same as the U.S’s, “to deny safe haven to extremists” — a strategy, he said, that also “needs to be the strategy of Pakistan.”
The message did not go unheeded in Pakistan. Senator Rahat Hussain responded to Karzai’s threat by suggesting that “he was speaking the language of someone else.”
Following the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan in July, both the Afghan and U.S. governments publicly accused Pakistan’s ISI of being involved in the attack. What was unusual about this accusation was not the claim of ISI involvement in acts of terrorism, but that Washington officially backed the claim rather than ignoring or trying to whitewash it.
This represented a significant shift in policy towards Pakistan, and sent a clear message to its new rulers that they’d better fall in line or risk becoming further estranged from Washington.
The risk of possibly being added to the list of “rogue states”, as defined by the U.S., is a grave one indeed, as evidenced by the case of Iraq and numerous other wars or military interventions carried out in pursuit of perceived U.S. “interests” as defined by small numbers of political and financial elites, without regard — and quite often contrary to — the actual interests of the American people.
There are at least some indications that presidential hopeful and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party Asif Ali Zardari might be willing to play along. It was disclosed last week that U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad had been contacting Zardari and, according to Zardari himself, providing “advice and help”. State Department officials were outraged when they learned of the contacts, which were described as “unauthorized”. But it’s unclear whether he was acting on behalf of the White House in an effort to bypass the State Department or not. As the New York Times article breaking the story noted, “now that Mr. Musharraf is out of the picture, the administration, despite public protestation of neutrality, is seeking another ally.”
Whatever may or may not be going on behind the scenes, Zardari seems intent on presenting himself publicly as willing to cooperate with the U.S., but fiercely independent of Washington. This public face would be necessary for any Pakistani leader, no matter how willing to serve Washington’s purposes one might actually be; that lesson from Musharraf certainly has not gone unnoticed among Pakistani political leaders.
In a column in the Washington Post yesterday, he did not mention the U.S. attack in Pakistan, but rather explained his decisions for running for president and policy beliefs. He wrote, “We stand with the United States” and other victims of terrorism, but added that “Fundamentally, however, the war we our fighting is our war. This battle is for Pakistan’s soul.”
In his column, Zardari wrote that “Judges who were dismissed arbitrarily by Musharraf in November are being restored to the bench by the government my party leads”. But the other major party in the coalition government, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, withdrew from the government after Zardari had stalled on reinstating the justices, including Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the Supreme Court Chief Justice who was removed by Musharraf because it was clear the court would rule that his disputed re-election was invalid since he was still head of the army at the time.
Zardari also wrote, “I spent nine years in prison…. I was imprisoned because of unsubstantiated charges — which it is now acknowledged were politically motivated — and was never convicted of anything, even under a judicial system controlled by our adversaries.”
Zardari is the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated last year. She had returned to Pakistan under an agreement with Musharraf to grant her and Zardari amnesty against corruption charges. In return, Bhutto would not challenge Musharraf’s election. One possible reason for Zardari’s hesitation to reinstate Chaudhry is the fear that with Musharraf now gone, Chaudhry might renew charges of corruption against Zardari.