Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dangerous Tensions - Sep 28

Without doubt the most dangerous place on earth right now is the Afgan-Pakistani border. So long as Canadian troops are there, the security and stability of Pakistan is paramount. Iran, Iraq, and North Korea seem tame by way of comparison. Below is a picture of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter in the area of operations.

Johnny Cash

Pakistan, U.S.: Dangerous Tensions Thursday, September 25, 2008 4:12PM

Pakistani forces fired at U.S. military helicopters along the Afghan-Pakistani border, the Pentagon said Sept. 25. The border dispute highlights the dangers of the high tensions between Islamabad and Washington — tensions that are likely to get worse before there is any hope that they will get better.


Pakistani forces fired upon U.S. military helicopters along the Afghan-Pakistani border, the Pentagon confirmed Sept. 25. However, a Pentagon spokesman denied Pakistani claims that the helicopters had entered Pakistani airspace. Islamabad later claimed that only “warning shots” were fired and later insisted that only signal flares were fired to warn the helicopters off.

This incident — almost a textbook border dispute, complete with each side claiming it was in the right place in an area where the precise border often is not clear, and subsequent revisions of statements — highlights the dangers of tensions as high as they are between Pakistan and the United States. For Washington, Islamabad’s lack of control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is providing a safe haven for Taliban and foreign jihadist fighters as well as a vector for arms feeding the Afghan insurgency. For Pakistan, the United States’ increasingly overt and unilateral raids and strikes on Pakistani territory are challenging Islamabad’s sovereignty, and with it the support of its people.

Thus, Pakistan has increasingly threatened to forcefully oppose any further U.S. intrusion, though the only casualty so far has been an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that crashed in the region Sept. 23 — possibly for unrelated technical reasons. Indeed, though often flying well above the range of “trash fire” — small arms and anti-aircraft artillery — UAVs make a good intermediate step for Islamabad to demonstrate its resolve on the issue without firing upon U.S. servicemen. Islamabad cannot hope to garner public support for the fight against its own jihadist insurgency while U.S. forces continue to engage in unilateral strikes in the country.

Meanwhile, unless a Pakistani patrol catches helicopters flying low, the danger from small arms fire is not particularly extreme. Nevertheless, should Islamabad begin to employ more capable air defense weapons, the situation could quickly escalate — though Pakistan’s most capable air defense systems will remain committed to the Indian border. Both sides compound the potential for escalation.

On the Pakistani side, the paramilitary Frontier Corps patrols much of the border. The corps harbors more intense local tribal loyalties — likely making any given patrol more inclined to shoot and more likely to be aggressive in trying to bring down whatever U.S. target they might stumble upon, even if it is only approaching the border. The Frontier Corps is also likely to have individuals with conflicting loyalties — a situation that militants can exploit to deliberately trigger a U.S.-Pakistani clash, which would work to their advantage. The Frontier Corps or other forces in the area also have broad direction from Islamabad — compounded by high profile public statements by senior officials that Pakistan will defend its own territory — that they can interpret as they see fit and act on their own at the tactical level. Moreover, an outpost in Mohmand agency was hit June 11 in a U.S. strike that left 11 Frontier Corps soldiers — including a mid-level officer — dead.

On the U.S. side, rules of engagement stipulate very clearly the right to self defense — generally including preemptive self defense when the individual has a subjective sense of imminent hostile intent. Though more professional and restrained in a tactical sense, U.S. forces are likely to act aggressively to defend themselves once fired upon. In fact, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sept 23 told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that the United Nations Charter allowed the United States to act in self-defense against international terrorists in Pakistan if the government was unable, or unwilling to deal with them. Perceptions and misconceptions in such situations — on both sides — often make the situation all too quick to escalate.

Even though this particular incident may boil down to the innocent firing of signal flares, the situation has all the ingredients for significant escalation while politically and militarily — in a strategic sense — both sides remain in limbo. Pakistan does not have the military capability to establish its writ in FATA on its own without reducing its forces opposite India to what it considers unacceptable levels. The United States is not only in mid-stride during the final weeks of election season, but is facing domestic economic troubles and is still formulating its new strategy for Afghanistan.

In short, should things continue on this path, the situation may well get worse before there is any hope of it getting better.

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