U.S. policy toward Pakistan appeared to change course during the October visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Islamabad. The Obama administration had spent the year preceding the trip steadily ratcheting up pressure on the Pakistanis to go after the Haqqani network, the primary Afghan Taliban insurgent group fighting against U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. This had included not only stepped-up Predator drone attacks against Haqqani targets in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, where the Haqqanis are headquartered, but also thinly veiled threats that the United States would send ground troops into Pakistan to attack them if the Pakistanis failed to take action themselves. The danger in following through on such threats was that it risked bringing the United States into conflict with Pakistan army forces in the area, who are engaged in a bloody war of their own with the Pakistani version of the Taliban. Like it or not, the Pakistan army is the only force in Pakistani society capable of preventing the Pakistani Taliban and their jihadist allies from taking over the state. What Colin Powell famously said about Iraq holds equally true of Pakistan: If you break it, you own it.
Secretary Clinton appeared to acknowledge this danger during her visit to Pakistan by ruling out the possibility of sending ground forces into the tribal areas. Instead, she expressed a desire to work with the Pakistanis to seek a negotiated settlement between the Afghan Taliban and the Karzai government in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have been supporting the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against growing Indian influence in the country but do not want them to dominate the entire country, which could invite a rerun of 9/11. Hence, Pakistan appears willing to cooperate. Relations, in the doghouse since the bin Laden raid in early May, were finally improving. A corner seemed to have been turned.
But all that changed last weekend when U.S. fighter aircraft and attack helicopters killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers manning two separate border posts on Pakistani territory in Mohmand tribal agency. That dropped relations to their lowest level ever. All shades of Pakistani public opinion were outraged by the event, and the Pakistanis have responded with a vengeance. They closed the two critical U.S. supply routes into Afghanistan, forcing U.S. personnel to evacuate Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan, which the United States uses as a staging area for Predator aircraft. Further, the Pakistanis are threatening to terminate their cooperation on Afghanistan. They pulled out of a meeting on the future of the country scheduled to take place next week in Bonn. According to Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, there will be “no more business as usual” with the United States.
It is not yet clear exactly what happened in Mohmand. U.S. and Afghan army forces were apparently engaged in a firefight with insurgent forces on the Afghan side of the border and called in support aircraft, which ended up firing on the Pakistani border posts. The Pakistanis said the U.S. air attacks were unprovoked and continued for almost two hours. Pakistani efforts to alert U.S. authorities that the attacks were taking place were apparently unsuccessful. The Pakistanis also insist they previously provided the United States with the coordinates of all Pakistan army installations along the border of the tribal areas, including the two involved in the Mohmand attack, in order to prevent such incidents. Although the United States quickly expressed regret over the incident and appointed a brigadier general to lead an investigation, some U.S. officials suggested privately that Pakistani troops manning the border posts had initiated the firing. This is possible. Mohmand agency has long been a hotbed of Pakistani Taliban activity, and the Pakistanis have already acknowledged that the two border posts that were attacked had been established to guard against incursions by Pakistani Taliban insurgents using Afghan territory as a safe haven against the Pakistani army forces. Some U.S. officials have speculated that Pakistani soldiers manning the border posts mistook the U.S. and Afghan army forces in front of them for Pakistani Taliban militants. These army forces were presumably in the area conducting operations against Afghan Taliban forces, who also have a presence on the Afghan side of the border with Mohmand in Kunar province.
The Mohmand incident is not the first in which U.S. aircraft fired on and killed Pakistani soldiers inside Pakistani territory. In September 2010, several U.S. attack helicopters crossed into Kurram tribal agency in hot pursuit of fleeing Afghan Taliban insurgents. Pakistani troops manning a border post in the area fired shots in the air to warn them off and took fire in turn. Two Pakistani soldiers were killed. In retaliation, the Pakistanis shut down one of the two U.S. supply routes into Afghanistan. It was allowed to reopen ten days later after the United States publicly apologized. Unfortunately, public apologies may not do the trick this time. Not only was the death toll in the Mohmand incident much higher, it also took place after a year of steadily worsening relations, triggered in part by the Kurram attack. A senior Pakistani official has publicly vowed that this time the closing of the supply routes into Afghanistan will be permanent. If this is something more than bluff, it could seriously impair the ability of the United States to sustain its forces in Afghanistan given the fact that nearly half of all U.S. and NATO supplies for the Afghanistan campaign pass through Pakistani territory.
Although Washington has worked hard to establish an alternate supply route through Russia and Central Asia, what U.S. officials refer to as the “northern distribution network” may not be able to compensate for the loss of the Pakistani routes. If this proves to be the case, the United States could find itself forced to choose between withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan much more rapidly than planned or ratcheting up the pressure on the Pakistanis even more. The latter option could involve a variety of economic or diplomatic sanctions, including cutting off aid and opposing international financial assistance to Pakistan or formally designating the country as a state sponsor of terrorism. It could also involve military action, including following through on earlier threats to send ground troops into the tribal areas. Needless to say, such actions would risk putting the two sides on a slippery slope toward even greater confrontation, possibly including armed conflict. In other words, Colin Powell territory.
At present it remains unclear what can get the two sides past this most recent crisis. The Pakistanis will certainly be looking for more than just the simple apology that concluded the Kurram border affair. Taking disciplinary action against any officials in the U.S. chain of command found to have acted improperly might do the trick, but this presumably would not be an option if the investigation into the incident reveals that Pakistani soldiers actually initiated the firing. An offer to compensate families of the victims might help, as it did in the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who was arrested last January for killing two Pakistanis he claimed were following him. Agreement on a more effective mechanism designed to prevent future incidents of this kind could also help.
But the real question is why U.S. forces were operating in an area where incidents such as the one in Mohmand could occur in the first place. The United States has long been frustrated by the ability of the Haqqani network and other Afghan Taliban insurgents to take refuge just across the border in Pakistan. But, although Washington may have decided to rule out the option of sending ground forces into the tribal areas prior to the Clinton visit, no such decision seems to have been made to restrict U.S. military operations in the immediate border area. If anything, such operations appear to have increased in recent months, perhaps as compensation for the decision not to pursue the tribal-areas option. The United States unquestionably has an interest in pursuing the Afghan Taliban forces resident on Afghan territory, both to degrade their capabilities and to pressure them into pursuing a negotiated settlement to the conflict. But was this particular operation worth it? If not, then why conduct operations within shooting distance of the Pakistani border, where clashes with Pakistani forces, even if unintended, are much more likely to occur? Someone needs to explain how this serves U.S. interests in the region.
John R. Schmidt teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He served in senior positions in the State Department during a thirty-year foreign-service career, including as political counselor in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in the three years leading up to 9/11. He is the author of The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).