Has the nine-year deal for Pakistan to serve US-led NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan as their primary logistics and supply base – while pursuing competing goals – run aground? This may be so after US officials intimated in the last three days that more remote-controlled aircraft and helicopters were being relocated from other Afghan sectors to the new front opening up now against Taliban strongholds in the Pakistan tribal area of North Waziristan.
Islamabad has responded by blocking the main frontier crossing to NATO supply convoy on Oct. 2, for the second day and refusing to stop armed Taliban fighters torching the trucks after a US cross-border air strike killed three Pakistan soldiers at a frontier post Thursday.
Even after some 30 Afghanistan-bound oil tankers were set ablaze Friday, Oct. 1, US air strikes over North Waziristan were redoubled that night and early Saturday, destroying a stronghold of the highly effective Haqqani network and killing at least six of its members.
debkafile's military sources do not rule out the US drive into North Waziristan escalating into ground incursions, especially if it is proved that Islamist terrorists are being trained and directed to carry out strikes inside America from networks sheltering in northwest Pakistan.
Thursday, Sept. 30 debkafile reported:
A new crisis in relations between Islamabad and Washington was triggered by the recent US tactical escalation from drones to helicopters for destroying insurgent and terrorist concentrations in Pakistan's lawless North Waziristan province, debkafile's military sources report. Pakistan had accepted the drone attacks but, even after they were nearly doubled to 21 this month, the high-flying unmanned aircraft were not up to their mission – especially against the Haqqani network.
Early Thursday, Sept. 30, Islamabad was angry enough to block a convoy of dozens of NATO trucks at the Torkham check post on the Khyber pass into Afghanistan, accusing NATO of killing three Pakistan frontier troops in a helicopter strike against a military checkpoint close to the border. The "hot pursuit" pretext was roughly rejected.
Through their many ups and downs during the nine-year Afghanistan war, Pakistan has served as NATO's main supply base for fuel, ammunition, spare parts and other provisions. An average 580 trucks with goods imported through Karachi and other Pakistani ports roll through Torkham west of Peshawar every day.
The resort to helicopters was ordered by the new Afghanistan commander, Gen. David Petraeus. He soon saw that the 30,000-troop surge was not up to turning the tide of the war against the Taliban – mainly because the bulk of its men, supplies and training facilities are located on the Pakistani side of the border in North Waziristan. He therefore petitioned President Barack Obama for permission to shift the brunt of combat into Pakistan and begin using helicopters against these targets.
The general explained that the Predator and Reaper drones were unequal to the task of demolishing large bases or catching insurgent forces on the move into Afghanistan or on their way back to their Pakistani havens. The capabilities of these high-tech weapons are limited. Needed now were droves of conventional helicopters able to scatter and fly close enough to the ground to chase and pin down small groups of insurgents on the move.
Before assenting to Gen. Petraeus' request, the White House made a final effort to persuade the Pakistani government and its military commanders to go into decisive action against the Taliban concentrations sheltering in North Waziristan.
They had little hope of a positive reply because the foremost US war target is the Haqqani network, the largest and best organized insurgent militia fighting NATO today. This militia's 12,000 men fight under the command of Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani. It maintains independent sources of supply, funding and recruits and is protected by its close operational and intelligence links with Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence – ISI – service.
The Haqqani network enjoys ISI protection as Islamabad's trump card for guaranteeing Kabul is governed by a pro-Pakistan regime after US troops start pulling out of Afghanistan in August 2011.
An allyied Afghanistan would give Pakistan the military edge over India, its strategists calculate, whereas its loss would be an unacceptable strategic setback.
At the same time, no one in Islamabad sneezes at the great benefits gained from good relations with the United States. Washington keeps Pakistan safe from war with India and a good flow of some $2 billion per year to keep its economy from breaking down. So when American drones attacked the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, its rulers gritted their teeth and kept quiet for as long as the damage was small enough for the Haqqanis to sustain.
But American cross-border Apache raids were another matter. The first helicopter attack over Pakistan on Monday, Sept. 27, killed 50 Taliban fighters, most of them members of the Haqqani network. The second, the following day, hit a Haqqani base in the Kurram district of North Waziristan. The third hit the wrong target, killing three Pakistani soldiers at a military check point near the Afghanistan border.
That was too much for Islamabad. Without even a word to the visiting US Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta, the NATO convoy was blocked at the border and the supply route threatened until the Americans promised to give up using helicopters and targeting the Haqqani network for "hot pursuit" operations.
Washington has not reacted publicly to the Pakistan demand. But Saturday, Oct. 2, US military sources disclosed that more troops were being piled up on the frontier against North Waziristan. Islamabad does not look like taking increased US encroachments of its territory lying down for now. The US command's promise of a joint probe with Pakistan to assign guilt for the killing of three Pakistani frontier will not be enough to keep Pakistani tempers at bay.