The South Asia Channel

Border wars and brinkmanship

Pakistan’s immediate reaction to the tragic November 26 airattacks on two check posts located barely 400 meters from the Afghan border inMohmand tribal agency, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, was to declare thatthe attacks were "unprovokedaggression" and convey impressions to the local media that the attackwas a premeditated assault by U.S and NATO forces in ...

TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images
TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan’s immediate reaction to the tragic November 26 airattacks on two check posts located barely 400 meters from the Afghan border inMohmand tribal agency, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, was to declare thatthe attacks were "unprovokedaggression" and convey impressions to the local media that the attackwas a premeditated assault by U.S and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Thisaroused a nationwide furor, further roiling an already tense relationship andleading to immediateretribution against American military and political interests in Pakistanand Afghanistan.

Soon after the incident, Pakistani army officials reportedlychangedthe rules of engagement for forward-based units on the country’s westernborder, authorizing them to fire on any such air intrusions without having toseek permission from senior commanders or headquarters, and indicated that airdefenses would be beefed up in that sector. But amid the hue and cry withinPakistan, somealso questioned why Pakistan’s large and expensive military forces had notresponded with air defenses to protect the posts, especially since the armyclaimed the supposedly "unprovoked" NATO aircraft attacks had lasted up to 2hours. Why were Pakistani Air Force (PAF) fighter aircraft notscrambled and dispatched to the scene? Did the PAF prudently stay out of anarmy screw-up (if, as U.S. officials insist, Pakistani forces fired first), ordid they just not get the word? It would have been an acute irony if Pakistan hadsent up its American-built F-16 fighters against American helicopters orslow-flying AC-130 gunships being used against the Taliban insurgency inAfghanistan.

In fact, the furor masks the fact that Pakistan’s close-in airdefenses along the border with Afghanistan are thin, and long-range radarsfacing Afghanistan are notalways on , as they were hardly needed in the past, except against Soviet airforces during the Afghan occupation of the 1980s. Ground-based radars’line-of-sight detection provides virtually no early warning against low-flyingaircraft coming through gaps in the mountains, either, although triangulationof their beams coupled with GPS coordinates of mapped border locations mayallow them to judge whether an aircraft has crossed into Pakistani air space. Whetherthey did on November 26 is not yet clear, since the firing on the posts couldeasily have been at standoff range, behind the Afghan side of the Durand Line.

The bulk of Pakistan’s fixed site and other long-range groundradar constituting the national air defense system (ADGES) are orientedprimarily to detecting threats from India, along the Line of Control dividingKashmir to the north, or coming across the main Indian border along the east, andprovide, from southern locations surveillance of potential threats from theArabian Sea. They also provide general surveillance of high-altitude trafficfrom Afghanistan but are not oriented to close-in mountain border surveillance.Most of Pakistan’s large numbers of low-altitude radar, anti-aircraft artilleryand surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers travel with armored and mechanizeddivisions and independent brigades deployed to counter a possible Indianinvasion. Pakistan has a large inventory (about 1,900 as of 2010) of transportableanti-aircraft guns of various types and calibers, and also has concentrationsof such AA guns and SAM defenses around air bases and sensitive facilities inthe interior. The PAF operates the national air defense system from a commandcenter in Chaklala (on the outskirts of Rawalpindi) through a network thatcontains high-and low-level ground radars.

RecentPAF acquisitions also include three Swedish (Saab 2000 Erieye) and two Chinese-madeZDK-03 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, which have360-degree vision and look-down radars that can detect aircraft at any altitude,as long as they are not hidden in ground clutter. Their primary missions areregarded as strategic, i.e., early warning, air defense and close-in,ground-based missile surveillance. And the PAF also deploys Pakistan’s mainstayair defense weapons, namely fighter aircraft with air-to-air interceptormissiles.

The vast majority of Pakistan’s estimated 3,150 ground-basedair defense missile systems in 2010 were in the low-altitude MANPADS (man-portableair defense systems) category, though some heat-seeking, low altitude types (suchas the Crotale)are mounted on vehicles. The shoulder-fired missiles are in the same general categoryas the American-made Stinger missiles that the Afghan mujahideen used to bringdown Soviet aircraft in the 1980s. The Pakistani army deploys a contemporaryassortment of these types of infra-red, or heat-seeking, short-rangemissile systems, including some 2,500 Chinese Mk1/Mk2 (an adaptation of theRussian SA-7) and HN-5A, 230 French Mistral,200 Swedish RBS-70, as well as 60 up-to-date Stingers (Raytheon FIM-92A).

It would be very easy for Pakistan to shift additionalanti-aircraft machine guns and to introduce these shoulder-fired missiles to itswestern region, and reportssuggest that the army is actually doing that now. However, if Pakistanifront line border posts are equipped with these systems and expected to use themagainst any air intrusion — accidental, pre-notified, or otherwise — thereare almost certain to be further accidental collisions and disruptions of U.S.-Pakistanicooperation. If U.S. aircraft accidentally stray into Pakistani territory andtake ground fire from anti-aircraft guns or missiles, they will almostcertainly retaliate as a standard operational procedure. Second, Pakistan wouldface the threat that some of these advanced missiles could get into militanthands, which would put not only U.S./NATO aircraft, but also Pakistani aircraft,at serious risk, and also broaden suspicions in the West of Pakistanicomplicity with militants. Stinger proliferation to militants might further deterthe Pakistani military from establishing control over its tribal territory, andwould, in effect, provide insurgents with yet additional cover in safe havensin Pakistan. Third, Pakistani firing of Stinger-type missiles against U.S.aircraft operating in Afghanistan may be seen as acts of war against the UnitedStates. While the Pakistani public increasingly views America’s war on terroroperations in Afghanistan as "not Pakistan’s war," they may be locked byescalation into owning "Pakistan’s war on American forces." It should takelittle imagination to grasp where that would lead.

The westward deployment of these MANPADS or low-altitudeanti-aircraft guns would probably not be able to threaten U.S. drones, because bilateralprotocols for U.S. drone activity along the Afghan-Pakistan border alreadyexist and are followed. Normally drones fly at altitudes above the ceiling of shoulder-firedmissiles, and their infra-red signatures, even at low altitude, are much moredifficult for infra-red sensors to detect than those of manned aircraft. Dronesmay not even be readily detectable by Pakistan’s existing ground radars in theregion. By diverting AEW&C aircraft with advanced radar to that region, however,Pakistan probably could detect and shoot down drones with fighter aircraft and,possibly, in the unlikely event they were relocated to the tribal region, targetthem with its small number of high altitude SA-2 missiles. But thesecontingencies, which would disturb Pakistan’s preferred strategies and airdefense deployments against India, seem far less likely than the prospect offurther (accidental or not) air-to-ground or ground-to-ground clashes betweenNATO and Pakistani troops. Risking the loss of Pakistan’s scarce 4thgeneration fighter aircraft and pilots in cross-border shoot-outs with U.S. forceswould be a recipe for further disaster.

Although the U.S. Central Command’s assessment of theMohmand incident is still a week away, the findings will likely blame communicationsbreakdowns and fog of war confusion, exploited by deceptive firing frommilitants close by Pakistan’s border posts, for the tragic case offriendly-fire. This was after all the most lethal, but not the first,cross-border incident of its kind. This may turn out to be one case where theextremist tail did wag the dog.

Lessons will be gleaned from this incident, but the crucialones concern the vital importance of transparent military-to-military communicationand information-sharing on the activities of militants, and dedicated measuresof mutual support for efforts to run them to ground. Neither side can afford tobe responsible by inconsistent strategy for taking the lives of the other. Technicalmeasures for avoiding collisions that have not yet been exploited include theuse of reprogrammable, identification-friend-or foe (IFF) transponders. Whenplaced with personnel at Pakistan’s forward check posts and supportinstallations, these should serve to ward off inadvertent fire by US forces,supplementing existing communications protocols. Frequently updating codesshould protect these instruments from theft and successful spoofing use bymilitants.

Beyond that, both sides must get back to basics onharmonizing policies on the future of Afghanistan. This would include pursuing asfar as they prove viable the so-called "reconciliation" negotiations with thoseinsurgents who might be induced to withdraw from combat in favor ofparticipation in the Afghan political process. Secretary Hillary Clinton’srecent visit to Islamabad warmlyinvited Pakistan to be a central player at the front end of this process, aprocess and role which Pakistan itself has long urged. Moving forward withrelevant bilateral working groups developing road maps and strategies couldhelp calm ruffled feathers while, importantly, working together for peaceful,internationally-supported outcomes in Afghanistan that will also satisfyPakistan’s legitimate long-term interests.                   

Dr. Rodney W. Jones isPresident of Policy Architects International in Reston, VA, and an expert onsecurity in South Asia.

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