By Air Commodore (Retd) Khalid Iqbal
Tacticians in Kabul have indeed shot the strategist Obama in his foot by conducting recent air space incursions and shooting down of Pakistani soldiers by NATO/ ISAF helicopters. President Obama’s efforts to improve America’s image amongst Pakistan public has indeed suffered a serious set back due to this incident. Apology tendered by the US ambassador to Pakistan on behalf of the government and people of America would help in cooling down the public anger; however the bad taste may prevail for quite some time.
As regards logistic calculus, around 60% of non-lethal supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan pass via two crossings from Pakistan, through difficult and inadequately secure land routes. Northern Distribution Network (NDN) handles 25% of supply and remaining 15% is conveyed by air. Monthly average of non-fuel supplies through Pakistan is over 4,000 containers, compared with 1,457 via NDN. Bulk of the fuel delivered by the Northern route is aviation related. Diesel and gasoline for ground vehicles and generators is conveyed through Pakistani routes. The NDN is also far slower and is three to five times costlier. NDN passes through a number of volatile Central Asian Republics; this network has its vulnerabilities which are far more serious than Pakistani routes. NDN is envisioned to supplement Pakistani supply line and not to supplant these.
NATO keeps a maximum of 30 days logistic reserve in its storage depots in Afghanistan. Reserves are already under strain due to high tempo operation in Kandahar. In case of protracted closure of Pakistani supply routes, NATO could be is in a serious danger of hitting a supply bottom rock. In case it has to rely on NDN only, which does not have the capacity to handle the entire logistic requirement, emanating acute shortages would definitely hit operational effectiveness.
To ensure arrival of requisite logistics at destination, the US pays huge bribes to corrupt Afghan officials and warlords. Afghan Taliban gangs provide security to these logistic caravans in exchange for hefty protection money. The cost of a gallon of gas delivered to US units in Afghanistan is between US$ 800-1000.
Fears are growing in Washington that the Afghan War may be lost. American popular opinion has turned against the war. Pentagon is scary that failure in Afghanistan will humiliate the US military and undermine America’s international power, a replica of what happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. American strategy is based on a sick premise that by killing enough insurgents, it could “bargain from strength” and force the Taliban into a settlement. Whereas any meaningful effort of reconciliation should begin from Haqqani network, the powerful group that the US is anxious to dismantle. Effort to decimate various powerful groups is only incurring their heightened antagonism and undermining the process of reconciliation.
Pentagon is convinced that it can still defeat resistance by Taliban and its allies “if only we can go after their sanctuaries in Pakistan”. It is a replay of a fixation similar to that of crossing over into Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War. Frustrated tacticians expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos to go after Communist base camps. The war theatre expanded. Though Cambodia and Laos were destroyed, the war was lost. Victory in war is achieved by concentration of forces, not by spreading them ever thinner and wider.
Pakistani leadership is caught between American demands and outraged Pakistanis. Recent polls show that Pakistanis now regard the United States as a greater enemy than India.
Public sentiment has been simmering against the provision of logistic support to NATO/ISAF since 2001, induction of drones in the theatre saw a sustained anti-America spike; and hardly a day passes when the Afghanistan bound containers are not attacked, torched or looted. Yet, losses on this count are less than 1% of the net logistic flow through Pakistan.
Recent violations of Pakistan’s land and air space by NATO/ISAF have added to the fury of the public. Like Afghans, Pakistani’s also take symbolic respect to their sovereignty quite seriously, and have emotional attachment to its manifestations.
CIA operated drone attacks in Pakistan during September totaled as many as the previous four months combined. Pakistani government publicly protests against drone incursions. The recent drone barrage may be overkill. Out of 181 drone attacks since 2004, over eighty have come in the past nine months. The quality of the targets is not as good; success rate is about 2%. Likewise, other forms of fire support and cross border intrusions are on the rise. Hence perception is snowballing that out of frustrations, NATO/ISAF is becoming increasingly trigger happy.
Modern warfare in all its manifestations is resource intensive. Even the insurgents require sustained logistical flow. Recent withdrawal of American vehicles, equipment and materiel from Iraq has been described as more massive and complex than the “Red Ball Express” that sustained the Allied offensive in Europe in World War II. This assessment pertains to a country which has flat, unimpeded access to Kuwaiti ports. Therefore, it is unrealistic to assume that over 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan could sustain combat operations at the current pace without Pakistani consent for allowing the transit of supplies.
Americans are demanding contradictory things from Pakistan. Out of all such things that Americans want from the Pakistan is the assurance of sustained flow of supplies, this indeed is a requirement based on the ground realities of war.
“Pakistan is not a walkover country,” warned a senior ISI official. If the United States continues its cross-border attacks, he said, “I will stand in the way of the convoys myself.” This official indeed represented the true public sentiment. A hard reality indeed!
Pakistan, angered at NATO/ISAF escalations, has exercised one of its key levers against its ally. Unless the US decides to follow a pragmatic approach, the symbolic blockade by the government could soon become a public enforced choking.
To ensure the flow of supply, Americans have to take care of sensitivities of Pakistani public. Any Pakistani government, whether civilian or military, could cooperate with the United States only to the extent it could manage the public anger against America.
The alliance is badly strained. However, there’s a core of mutual interests that has the potential to steer relationship out of turbulence. Pakistan is poised to oppose any attempt to widen the scope of operations, both expanse wise, as well as weapon system wise. No Pakistani government or military leadership can survive if it’s seen as a pushover for America. Scenario of American helicopter killing Pakistani soldiers will find no supporters in Pakistani leadership. Public sentiment is to shoot down such intrudes. Pak-US relations are fragile, yet sticky. To remain viable and sustainable, these need to be strengthened structurally. Need of the moment is cool heads in Washington, Islamabad and Kabul.
Air Cdre Khalid is Masters in Political Science along with War and Strategic Studies. He has also done Air WarCourse, Fellow of Air War College. Instructor’s Course. Senior Command & Staff course. Combat Commander’s Course. He has been a Directing Staff at various institutions of Pakistan Air Force. Presently he is a visitng faculty at:
- PAF air War College (Staff Wing &War Wing).
- School of Army Air Defence.
- Naval War College, Lahore.
Quaid-i- Azam University (DSS Department).