Border incident near Salalah Ghar: What you need to know

Photo courtesy US Army on Flickr

This weekend’s NATO airstrike, which caused 25 fatalities at a Pakistani Army outpost near Salalah Ghar, has sparked outrage in Islamabad.

Hours after the incident, the Torkham Gate, one of NATO’s key supply lines into Afghanistan, was closed.  Shortly thereafter, Pakistani authorities gave the US a 15-day eviction notice for Shamsi Airfield, one of the CIA’s key drone bases, and despite conciliatory words from US officials, border skirmishes between NATO and Pakistani forces still continue.

In response, US Central Command has launched a full investigation into the incident, with a preliminary report due on the 23rd of December.  But aside from words of condolence and assurances of a thorough investigation, ISAF has remained uncharactaristically tight-lipped.  Likewise for Pakistan, which, despite its rhetoric, has refused to offer any assistance to the CENTCOM inquiry.

I’m going to abstain from commenting on the airstrike until the preliminary report is made available on the 23rd.  Until then, some considerations:

  • Pakistan’s refusal to cooperate is certainly disconcerting.  ISAF should make this a key point in its IO campaign:  We’re willing to offer transparency, why won’t you?  Follow up with direct quotes from Pakistani officials who refuse to cooperate.  Put them on the spot.
  • Releasing gun tape footage, without the benefit of the full investigation, would be counter-productive to ISAF’s cause.  Cameras don’t lie because they don’t need to.  The untrained observer has immense capacity for self-deception.  As we saw with the “Collateral Murder” video, failure to place the video in its proper context–by adding commentary and facts not yet known to the participants of the battle–skews the public’s perception of the battle.
  • An ISAF spokesperson claimed that insurgents often fire at NATO troops from positions located near Pakistani Army outposts.  And as New York Times reporter CJ Chivers reports from Afghanistan, “near” often means “within 100 meters“, according to counter-fire radar systems.  Worse yet, that artillery fire also comes with a level of precision which implies some level of professional military training.   Says Chivers:
Another officer, who analyzed each incident, said attacks often come from positions next to Pakistani military or Frontier Corps border posts. He said there has been no sign of Pakistani units trying to stop the firing, or of willingness to help American units identify who is shooting at them.

He offered a commonly held assessment: “They are getting help,” the officer said of the insurgents. “It’s PakMil,” he added, using the acronym for Pakistani military.

Asked what evidence supported this claim, he said: “Contact with the PakMil when these incidents are going on is often nonexistent. We usually can’t get a hold of these guys. When we do get a hold of these guys, they say they are not aware or can’t see it. Looking at the terrain, it is very hard to believe.”

The officer pointed on a map to several frequently used firing sites. Then he pointed to Pakistani military positions. Some Pakistani military positions were less than a mile from insurgent firing positions — and had clear line of sight. The officer asked not to be identified.

  • Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparotti, a former commander in Afghanistan, believes that elements of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps often side with Taliban insurgents, not as a matter of official government policy, but because they sympathize with the Taliban.
  • Accounts from both sides of the border appear to vary, and Pakistan’s version seems to have changed twice.  But let’s not read into this just yet:  this could very well be the result of a chaotic event.  And let’s not forget that the border between the two nations is poorly-defined, and that cooperation between the two militaries has been minimal.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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