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One nation’s minor accident is another’s barbarous catastrophe

Cross-Border Incident

by BRIAN CLOUGHLEY

“Pakistan Rejects US Findings on Deadly Air Strike” was a typical headline on December 23,  following the Pentagon’s “Department of Defense Statement Regarding Investigation Results into Pakistan Cross-Border Incident.”

The “incident” involved hours of US airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistan army soldiers and wounded 13 more in Mohmand Agency in northwest Pakistan on November 26. And if this is what the Pentagon calls an “incident” it makes you wonder how they would refer to the slaughter of 24 US soldiers in similar circumstances.

It is hardly surprising that the Pakistan army’s first reaction to the investigation report was that it is “short on facts,” if only because the Pakistani account of events was not considered in any way.  The story, now, is that Pakistan refused to take part in the inquiry, and, like all effective propaganda, the yarn has a modicum of truth.

Pakistan was told it would not have equal status in the inquiry, so declined being relegated to an inferior position, because it was made clear that its members of the inquiry board would not be allowed to examine the most important information. There was no question of being permitted anything like equivalent representation.  Can you imagine the Pentagon allowing a Pakistani officer to question US air force pilots who carried out the air strikes?  Or access the record of computer exchanges? Or interview any of the US special forces involved in the ground operation?

There wasn’t the remotest chance of that.  It was insulting to even suggest that Pakistan might accept such terms. But that’s typical of the way that ‘allies’ are treated by Washington.

Heading the inquiry was US Air Force Special Forces Brigadier General Stephen Clark whose previous job involved responsibility “for preparing Air Force Special Operations Forces for missions worldwide in support of Army, Navy and Marine Corps special operations forces and USAF counterparts.”  Just the man to be objective and impartial about the killing of foreign soldiers by US aircraft supporting a mission by US special forces. And just what was the Mission?  We’ll never know.

Here he is speaking on  December 22 about the shambles he investigated :  “in the background is a series of telephone calls from Pakistani LNOs to their RC — regional command element liaisons to say that their forces are under fire. There is confusion caused by this because there is a lack of precision as to where this is occurring.  When asked, the general answer back was, well, you [Americans] know where it is because you’re shooting at them, rather than giving a position.  So again, understanding that there was no — understanding that there were border positions in the area, people trying to do the right thing and nail down specifics so they can take action caused quite a bit of confusion.” (Google ‘DOD News Briefing Gen Clark’ for his performance. It’s surreal.)

In spite of most of his statements being gibberish, there is no confusion about one essential fact :  there was, that night, only one series of US airstrikes within the territory of Pakistan.  They were on the Pakistan army posts in Mohmand that had detected movement to their front.  The Pakistanis had not been informed there was to be activity by US forces on the border and deny firing the first shots, but even if they did fire first it would have been perfectly reasonable to do so, as the stealthy US movement could well have been a Taliban incursion from Afghanistan similar to the one in October that killed two Pakistani soldiers.

If the US high command did not know exactly where their aircraft were firing, then matters have come to a sad professional pass in the most hi-tech military in the world.  These aircraft know to the exact yard where they are striking. The sensible thing to have done would have been to order ‘Stop!’, and then to conduct basic checks as to what was going on.  It is that simple.  The Clark acknowledgement that  “You know where it is because you’re shooting at them” has an inescapable logic — or would have, if the shooters and their commanders were logical people.

Then we come to the “misunderstandings” about where the Pakistan army positions are located, and I say, from first-hand knowledge, that the US claim of ignorance about where the posts were located is not credible. I was in Mohmand at the beginning of November and had a comprehensive briefing by the army’s 77 Brigade on all aspects of operations.  I am satisfied that the “coalition forces” in Afghanistan were given the exact position of every post of the Pakistan army along the border. Later detail from Afghanistan (from an ISAF source) and Pakistan has reinforced my conviction.  But there is another side to this.

The suave and articulate Brigadier General Clark was asked by a reporter:  “were you saying that when the US has given . . .  information to the Pakistanis, US operations have been compromised?”

Clark’s reply was “It was US or ISAF operations were believed to be compromised due to that.  And again, that was not the scope of the investigation, so that was told to us as part of the atmospherics within the ISAF headquarters on down.  We did not dig into that; we did not validate it.  That was just indicated to us.  In fact, there was an operation on 5 October in the same region where, when they went to in-fill the helicopters, they were hit with RPG fire, so that lends to their mindset as well — so, ISAF operations being compromised by sharing that information.”

The response by this senior US officer is not altogether lucid (although “in-fill” is a wonderful construction; is it taught at Staff Colleges?), but what comes out, loud and clear, is that Clark didn’t “validate” the critical evidence that information concerning US operations on the border with Pakistan is not provided to Pakistan.  Presumably this prompted the statement by the Commander of US Central Command, General James Mattis, on December 26 that  “The strongest take-away from this incident [that word, again] is the fundamental fact that we must improve border coordination, and this requires a foundational level of trust on both sides of the border.”   But US forces have been there for nine years without establishing border coordination, simply because they do not inform Pakistan about their operations.

Little wonder that the Pakistan army doesn’t trust the US military and states, correctly, that the Clark investigation is “short on facts.”

According to the New York Times on December 26, the Clark Report “revealed for the first time” that a US AC-130 gunship had flown into Pakistan to help the helicopter gunships in their slaughter mission.  This fact had of course been known by the unfortunate troops who were targets (I have accounts from wounded soldiers in the military hospital in Peshawar), but at least it has been admitted publicly.  But possibly the most amazing thing about the Report (and the word ‘possibly’ is used because who knows what else is contained in the real version that will never be released) is the casual recommendation that the US commander in Afghanistan should “Consider harmonizing ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom rules of engagement to promote clarity and transparency.”

What these people are telling us is that there is one set of  Rules of Engagement —  which are never revealed —  for US forces and another (or others) for the rest of the 47 nations involved in the Afghan war, although whether this applies to Afghan troops is not known.

According to the Pentagon, ‘Rules of Engagement’ are “Directives issued by competent military authority that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.”  For some fifty contingents totaling 130,000 troops to wage war in a foreign country without having the same directives about how to conduct operations would be laughable if it were not criminal.  If there is so little internal coordination, it is hardly surprising that there is none at all with the Pakistan army, as was admitted by Mattis in observing that there has been no “pre-mission near-border coordination” for US operations.

What is ignored by the Pentagon and its media supporters is that US special forces operations in Afghanistan are not notified to the Afghan authorities or the militaries of allied foreign countries, or — almost unbelievably —  on many occasions to other US forces. Until 2010 US special forces operated without reference to anyone except their own headquarters, and even when that was changed, there are still “very small numbers of US SOF” (to quote the New York Times) exempt from the overall command system. Only the special forces themselves know what the definition of “very small numbers” might be — if there is one. Like everything else that is potentially embarrassing, this is kept tightly secret. These swaggering thugs are out of control. And they are the Taliban’s best recruiters.

Washington has complained numberless times about Pakistan “not doing enough” to guard the frontier with Afghanistan. This is obvious nonsense, because there are over 150,000 Pakistani troops in the north west of the country, doing just that.  The conflict there began because of the US invasion of Afghanistan, after which thousands of militants poured across the border into Pakistan and exerted savage influence in the border region.  Operations against them by Pakistan’s army and para-military forces have resulted in the death of almost 4,000 soldiers, which by any standards is paying a considerable price.  Perhaps even “doing enough.”  But when Pakistan army soldiers,  stationed along the border to help America in its war in Afghanistan,  are slaughtered by US air strikes, ordered by US special forces whose accountability is verging on zero, it is understandable that the Pakistan army is none too keen to support a supposed ally which treats it with such disdain.

The inquiry into the massacre was a charade, and there is no doubt that if 24 US soldiers had been killed by Pakistani gunships there would have been a somewhat different reaction by the Pentagon — and by Congress, which would have gone hysterically berserk.  But only foreign troops suffered, and no US soldiers were killed or injured, so it was only “an incident.”

Washington’s values are such that one nation’s minor accident is another’s terrible catastrophe. And no doubt the word-empowered and in-filled intellectual Brigadier General Clark will be promoted in due course, like so many of his ilk.  Catastrophes take different forms.

Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.com