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IDSA Pakistan Project Meeting, 4 October 2010

Surge in NATO attacks along Durand Line to strain US-Pak Relations

At the weekly meeting of IDSA’s Pakistan Project on October 4, 2010, there was a discussion on the implications of the recent helicopter attack on an FC outpost on the Pakistani side. The participants in the meeting analysed the attack and the possible impact it would have on US-Pak relationship. There was a consensus that the relationship has come under strain and that if the Afghan situation deteriorates and NATO hot pursuits continue, then the relationship could even worsen further. However, the situation is expected to improve because given its dependence on Pakistan for the Afghan operations, the US is likely to address Pakistani concerns.

The Attacks

The press release by ISPR, Pakistan on September 30, 2010 said that early in the day at 0525 hrs, “two helicopters from Afghanistan appeared to have crossed the border into Pakistan at Mandata Kandaho, Ali Mangola area of Upper Kurram Agency and engaged through cannon fire on an outpost of Frontier Corps, located 200 meters inside Pakistan (location of post shared with ISAF), manned by six soldiers.” Three soldiers were killed in the incident. This was the third attack in a week.

The attack was followed by the visit of Leon Panetta, Director, CIA, to Pakistan. As reported in the media, he had a series of very tense meetings with Zardari, Gilani and Kayani and took a tough line on the drone attacks. He asked Pakistan to extend full cooperation, better intelligence sharing and greater operational space within Pakistan to avert future threats.

Following this, Pakistan closed the crossing at Torkham, thus interrupting one of the major NATO supply lines to Afghanistan. Taking a cue from this, militants mounted several attacks on NATO supplies in far off places like Khuzdar, Quetta and Shikarapura. These developments are significant because nearly 70 per cent of supplies and 40 per cent of fuel used by NATO are currently being shipped through Pakistan.

As things stand now, the NATO chief has expressed his regrets about the attack and both the US and Pakistani authorities have agreed to conduct a joint investigation into the attack. Meanwhile, after six days since the attack, 200 tankers and containers carrying supplies for NATO forces are stranded at the border point waiting for the tension to subside.

Implications

The participants noted that in recent months the number of drone attacks have increased in Pakistan, especially since General David Petraeus assumed command of US-NATO forces in Afghanistan since end-June 2010.

In September alone there were about 21 drone attacks, apart from three cases of alleged violation of Pakistani air space by NATO helicopter gunships. This indicated an effort on the part of NATO forces to push the frontier of their counter-Taliban operations well into Pakistani territory.

With reconciliation efforts faltering and the July 2011 deadline for withdrawal drawing nearer, these attacks in a way suggest the sense of hurry and impatience that characterize the US efforts to show something visible on the ground. Simultaneously, the attacks send out a signal to Pakistan to cooperate more meaningfully in the war against the Taliban. However, there is no visible change in Pakistan’s strategy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound.

In the Pakistani Urdu language media, many editorials are now backing the government’s decision to close the Torkham crossing. Some are even arguing that Pakistan should stop all the routes and the army should work closely with patriotic Pakistanis (read “the militants”) who are attacking NATO supplies.

In the meanwhile, Taliban have claimed three out of the four attacks on NATO oil tankers so far. They have also vowed to launch more attacks unless NATO stops violation of Pakistani territory. This is interesting because the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan are seeking to fight for the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan.

Participants in the meeting held that such an increase in attacks is likely to add to the existing tensions in US-Pakistan relations. Despite the ongoing strategic dialogue and substantial American help following the floods, the popularity of the US has not shown any sign of improvement. There was a view that the drone attacks by the US were resented more in Punjab than in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. However, it was agreed that the overall popular opinion in Pakistan militated against the US. This is likely to affect the behaviour of the Pakistani ruling establishment, at least overtly, towards the US.
Thus, the situation in Pakistan continues to remain in a state of flux. In case US-Pakistan relations deteriorate, it is likely to have a negative impact both on the internal situation in Pakistan and the regional political dynamics. In this context, India needs to monitor developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan closely and adapt its policies to the changing realities in the region.

Participants: Arvind Gupta, Vice Admiral (Retd.) K. K. Nayyar, Ashok K. Behuria, Sumita Kumar, Sushant Sareen, Shamshad Ahmad and Medha Bisht.