The South Asia Channel

Don’t hold back with Pakistan

In the winter of 2009, standing on the mud wall of a border outpost manned by our partnered Afghan Border Police, I was chatting with Commander Aziz, a well-known local police chief commander. Aziz pointed east to the locations of Taliban training camps on a mountain just inside Pakistan, and to their usual infiltration routes ...


In the winter of 2009, standing on the mud wall of a border outpost manned by our partnered Afghan Border Police, I was chatting with Commander Aziz, a well-known local police chief commander. Aziz pointed east to the locations of Taliban training camps on a mountain just inside Pakistan, and to their usual infiltration routes around the dusty bordertown of Angor Adda. Suddenly, the high-pitched whoosh of rockets launching screamed across the valley from the direction of Pakistan to our left front towards our main coalition base to our rear. "Incoming!" one of my operators yelled as we dove under the nearest vehicles in a flash. I was only visiting, but they knew that typically the rocket attacks on the coalition base were accompanied by mortar fire on the Afghan border posts. As we dusted ourselves off, and my Air Force combat controller jumped on the radio to call for one of the aircraft continually circling over Afghanistan, I looked off in the distance towards the Pakistani military border post known as Post 41. The white trails of smoke from the rocket launches were coming from the base of the outpost on a small hill several kilometers in the distance. I noticed the launch site for the rockets was within spitting distance of the Pakistani post. The Border Police had established ambushes the night before on several of the typical launch sites, but the Taliban had learned to set up their sites very near Pakistani border positions, as the Afghans wouldn’t come near them for fear of being attacked by the Pakistanis. 

Just days before, we had met with the Pakistani military area commander for the string of army and Frontier Corps border posts that dotted that area of south-eastern Pakistan. We had confronted him about the almost daily shelling of our bases that was originating from Pakistan (which had wounded several of my men), regular reports of the insurgents using some of his bases for resupply, and the artillery duels his posts were regularly having with the Afghan border outposts. Over dozens of cups of tea, the Pakistani commander, who had traveled several hours from his headquarters in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, in his perfectly pressed khaki uniform, assured us that our reporting must be faulty and that his men were only authorized to return fire in response to Afghan fire. The meeting, typical of these border sit-downs between the two neighbors, degenerated into Pakistani and Afghan nearly coming to blows, with my teamleader playing referee in the middle. The Pakistanis made a number of commitments to conduct coordinated patrols, information exchanges and more regular meetings, none of which were fulfilled.    

In the midst of the attack on this particular day, one of my men back at our coalition base got on the hotline we had established with the Pakistanis to ask them to engage the insurgents launching the rockets, or to at least to send out a patrol. After half an hour of calling, a Pakistani soldier finally picked up the phone and informed us that the post commander was not present, and that no one else could authorize a patrol or firing of their heavy weapons except in self-defense.  

Back at the Afghan post, I could hear a series of dull thuds emanating from our main base in the distance as the rockets exploded all around it. One of my officers and I were on the radio arguing with multiple higher headquarters stations for authorization to return fire on the insurgents launching the rockets with the artillery platoon station at our main base. One headquarters, hundreds of miles away, indicated that their satellite imagery showed the rockets were launching too close to some civilian homes, and that if we returned fire there was too high a likelihood of civilian casualties. We could clearly see that the "homes" were old sheep pens. The next higher headquarters was concerned the artillery fire could hit too close to the Pakistani post. Any fire sent into Pakistan must be cleared by the regional command, even when U.S. troops are engaged in exchanges of fire within surgents.  

While the artillery units were writing their hands, another Taliban rocket salvo launched, and I authorized the Air Force fighter overhead to bomb the launch site as well as the men running from the site towards the mountains where Commander Aziz had earlier pointed out the training camps. As a ground element under fire, I could authorize the airstrike without higher approval as part of our inherent right of self-defense (a deliberate air attack however, would have been heavily scrutinized by staffplanners and lawyers). The pilot also expressed concern about bombing so close to the Pakistani outpost and about targeting men running without weapons, until I assured him that as the ground force commander I took full responsibility for the consequences. With his cockpit tape recorder running, he asked me to repeat the command twice. The bombs killed at least four of the escaping insurgents and destroyed additional rockets as they sat on their launchers, ready to fire.We subsequently patrolled to the site of the launches near Pakistani Post 41. As we maneuvered, the Afghans intercepted communications in Urdu-accented Pashto, informing the Taliban of our movements and instructing them on where to set up an ambush. Since Post 41 was the only thing within range of the Afghan’s frequency scanners, the instructions to the Taliban were almost certainly coming from the Pakistani military. Commander Aziz and his men were more nervous about the Pakistanis firing on us with their heavy weapons than he was about an ambush. No attack occurred that day, but months later one of my men would lose his foot due to a booby-trapped mine laid at the site.  For our efforts that particular day, my officers and I were were investigated as to whether we had proper approvals to order the airstrike, and because the Pakistani military complained we wounded one of their soldiers. 

I relay this incident in light of the recent diplomatic crisis between Pakistan and the United States over the strikes against two Pakistani border encampments last month, because it is indicative of similar exchanges occurring up and down the Afghan-Pakistani border on an almost daily basis.  Indeed, it is important to understand that incidents such as the exchange in Mohmand are not isolated occurrences, though only the most serious make headlines. Second, as our policy community is finally coming to fully realize, Pakistani forces are not only turning a blind eye, but actively aiding and abetting the insurgency in attacks on not only the Afghans but U.S. and coalition forces as well. That said, it’s equally important to realize the painstaking, almost paralyzing, lengths to which the coalition goes to attempt to coordinate with the Pakistani Army and to avoid accidental attacks on their posts.   

In the wake of the Mohmand airstrikes, a senior Pakistani officer accused NATO forces of deliberately targeting the Pakistani outpost. In my experience commanding U.S. Army Special Forces units spread across four provinces on the Pakistani border, this is simply ludicrous. Airstrikes and artillery in the border region come under enormous scrutiny, and are often only approved at the highest levels in-theater. In fact, one of our most significant frustrations was that getting approval for strikes over the border or anywhere within a kilometer of a Pakistani border post took too long or was often not approved at all.

More likely, as some U.S. officials have described, a joint coalition patrol was fired upon by insurgents at night, if not by the Pakistanis themselves, and in a case of mistaken identity, the coalition commander called an air strike on nearby Pakistani outposts. Rather than questioning the coalition procedures, we should be questioning why the Taliban are so confident in their own safety in proximity to the Pakistani military. The answer is obvious, and I applaud the Obama administration for expressing condolences but refusing to apologize. We have spent 10 years delivering billions of dollars of "carrots" to encourage the Pakistani Army to shift its strategic calculus away from using extremism as a foreign policy tool, and this latest crisis may show that it’s time for a change.  

Given the widespread view in the region that the United States is not serious about a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, Pakistani support for Afghan insurgents is understandable, but not excusable. President Barack Obama has clearly set the course for a minimalist presence in Afghanistan, and it’s time to move our Pakistan policy towards using bigger sticks in order to fracture the insurgency’s leadership and undermine theirsanctuary while we still have significant forces in Afghanistan. We must seriously put cross-border strikes by U.S. forces on Haqqani and Taliban leadership on the table and continue to shift our supplies to the Northern Distribution Network and other routes, reducing our reliance on Pakistani supply routes. To the extent that we continue providing significant security assistance to the Pakistani army it should be prioritized away from traditional Foreign Military Sales and towards the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund, which only allows the Pakistani military to purchase counterinsurgency-related equipment. There are significant risks to this approach to be sure — risks so bleak that heretofore in the face of every incident with Pakistan, U.S.policymakers have defaulted back to trying a different set of incentives. Ten years later, our gains and sacrifices in Afghanistan are what’s truly at risk. Our soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and our national interests deserve a change in the U.S.-Pakistan dynamic. 

Michael Waltz formerly served as a senior advisor for counterterrorism to Vice President Richard Cheney, and still serves as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer in the reserve component. He is currently Vice President for Strategy at Metis Solutions, LLC, and a National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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