War, even in an era of laser-targeted missiles and unmanned attack drones, is an uncertain and dangerous business in which even friendly forces can pose a threat. The latest evidence for this comes from an incident two weeks ago, in which NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers who were manning guard posts along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Some of the facts in this case are known, some are disputed and some of the facts may, unfortunately, never become clear.
In the American version of the incident, Afghan and American forces were engaged in a strike, in the middle of the night, against a Taliban encampment located on the Afghan side of the border. While this operation was taking place, they came under fire from what they believed to be Taliban forces operating in Pakistan, across the border. The ground troops then requested airstrikes against the positions in Pakistan. Following established procedures, these airstrikes were approved by Pakistani liaison officers before NATO aircraft carried them out.
Pakistani forces offer a very different report. In this version of events, the border posts only opened fire into Afghanistan after they had come under attack. Pakistan also contends that the coordinates that the Pakistani military approved for airstrikes were not those that NATO aircraft actually fired upon.
The truth of the matter may never be known. The U.S. military is conducting an investigation, which Pakistan is, thus far, refusing to cooperate with. It seems likely that Pakistan is performing its own investigation into the matter, and it may be the case that the U.S. is not cooperating with that investigation.
What is clear is that relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, which had already been high in the months prior to this latest incident, may be nearing a breaking point. Pakistan has ordered the CIA to vacate a base in Pakistan used to operate drone aircraft, closed off NATO supply routes that run through Pakistan and have cancelled their attendance of a conference on Afghanistan taking place this week in Germany.
The U.S. may be entirely at fault for this regrettable incident, blame may lay with the Pakistani military or culpability may be shared by both sides. It seems likely that the American-led and the Pakistani forces both believed themselves to be firing on Taliban forces. In any case, what seems to be lacking but needed by all parties is an understanding both of the other side’s views and of the tragic realities of warfare.
Ten years ago, Pakistan suddenly found itself with a war on its western borders, as the U.S. struck at Al Qaeda and the Taliban government that had sheltered it. The war spread into Pakistan itself as fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda forces crossed into Pakistan’s territory. This war has thus far cost the lives of tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and thousands of military personnel. The U.S. knowingly violated Pakistan’s sovereignty earlier this year, when American Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Regardless of whether the United States was justified in withholding knowledge of the raid from Pakistani officials, consider how enraged American citizens would be if one of our allies carried out a similar operation within our borders. Understandably, Pakistan is tired of this war and the costs to its own population. Real or perceived, callous treatment at the hands of allies such as the U.S. does nothing to improve this viewpoint.
From the American point of view, coming under fire from Taliban forces –- forces that are known to operate on both sides of the border –- would hardly be unusual, and so calling in an airstrike likely seemed completely justified. What the U.S. seemingly fails to recognize is the immediacy that incidents such as this have to the Pakistani people. This is not, to them, a news report of casualties from a conflict occurring on the other side of the planet. It is an event that occurred, from the point of view of many Pakistanis, within a couple hundred miles of their homes.
What both sides share, and need to keep in mind, is that a peaceful, stable Afghanistan is in the best interests of both Pakistan and the U.S., and with that in mind, some solution to this current crisis, recognizing both the burden this has placed on the people of Pakistan as well as the recognition that the risk of friendly fire causalities should be lowered as much as possible but can never be completely eradicated, must be worked toward, by all allied forces involved.