A Critical appraisal of ignoble NATO attack on Salala posts
By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
It will be recalled that in order to multiply pressure on Pakistan, western border was deliberately heated up by strategic partners sitting in Kabul. Between May and September 2011, tens of deadly raids had been conducted by Waliur Rehman and Maulvi Faqir led militants based in safe haven of Kunar and Fazlullah led militants based in Nuristan duly backed by Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), RAAM, Afghan regime and NATO. Levies employed on border duties and villagers were cruelly killed by militants. Kabul and ISAF HQ were repeatedly requested to control cross border terrorism and to close down sanctuaries of anti-Pakistan militants in Kunar and Nuristan, but no heed was paid. Perforce, GHQ deployed regular troops in Mehmand and Chitral and cleared the restive areas of the presence of undesirables. 7 AK Regiment was deployed in Mohmand Agency closer to Afghan border. It established several border posts to oversee possible infiltration routes.
Two posts volcano and Boulder were set up ahead of Salala village in Mehmand Agency on a barren ridgeline about 8000 feet in height in a manner that that they leaned forward on the forward slope so as to effectively cover the valley running from east to west effectively. The two posts, each comprising about platoon strength 34 soldiers were so deployed to cover northwestern and northeastern approaches. The weapons were sited in a manner to be able bring down enfilade and grazing fire in the valley. One post covered the exit point of the valley in the west; the second post covered the eastern edge at the entry point. Company HQ with a platoon were in depth. The posts located on a dominating feature enjoyed excellent line of sight and arc of fire. The two posts also acted as the screen of the battalion.
The valley was frequented by TTP militants together with ANA trained Afghan militants based in Kunar. This route was the shortest and safest from Kunar and led straight to heart of Mehmand Agency wherefrom the infiltrators had multiple choices to either strike within that tribal agency, or Bajaur, or Upper or Lower Dir. Deeper targets of Malakand, Buner, Swat or even Chitral and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa could also be approached via Mohmand. Northwestern edge of the ridges running from north to south and overlooking the said valley was under the control of pro-government tribal lashkar, which had assisted the security forces in chasing out terrorists.
As a consequence to deployment of these posts backed by troops in depth, several attempts by militants to sneak through the valley were successfully blocked by the two posts. As a result, cross border movement had ceased from mid October onwards. Blockage of the main passageway resulted in assembly of large numbers of militants belonging to TTP in Kunar who were getting desperate to enter Pakistan and recapture the lost ground. They were also keen to settle scores with pro-government lashkars, who in their view had betrayed the cause of the tribesmen. Karzai regime, NDS and Afghan National Army (ANA) were also boiling with anger after attacks on NDS HQ and murder of Rabbani in Kabul and wanted to settle scores. Their reprisal actions by militants based in Kunar had ceased as a result of military posts at Salala.
In order to seek assistance from NATO, NDS and RAW informed CIA that Pakistan sponsored militants were using Mehmand-Salala-Kunar route to create unrest in Kunar and other regions of Eastern Afghanistan. It was also conveyed that the two Pakistani posts at Salala were not only providing cover to the infiltrators but also preventing the movement of their fighters into Mehmand. Based on this input, a comprehensive plan was hatched in Kabul to provide covering fire to the batch of over 100 militants and ensure their safe entry. It was also planned to destroy the two posts so as to remove the irritants for good so that future cross border movement could be resumed unhindered. As a cover plan, a mock operation by ANA was conducted in Kunar province closer to the border from 25 November onwards. NATO air cover was made part of the operation. The area was well away from Salala area and deep inside Afghan territory and Pakistan Army was conveyed about it in advance. Six figure grid coordinates were once again conveyed to relevant authorities in Kabul through Army’s liaison officers in NATO HQ and in Border Coordination Centre (BCC). 7AK Regiment was also informed which could hear the noise of flying choppers on that fateful night.
Just before dawn on 25/26th, when all the soldiers were fast asleep except for the sentries on duty, two Apache helicopters suddenly crossed the border and started firing at the two posts indiscriminately. The helicopters remained at a safe distance for fear of being hit by an ack ack gun or a surface-to-air missile. The helicopters were backed by four other combat helicopters and close air support was provided by F-18s. No sooner fire came on the posts, a field officer commanding the two posts instantly contacted the ISAF and informed that Pakistani posts were being attacked and fire must cease. But firing continued for one hour.
During this period, bulk of infiltrating force along with donkeys laden with ammunition and explosives moved passed the valley. By that time, urgent messages had been sent by GHQ on hotline and the helicopters turned back. When the helicopters went away and dust settled down, the defenders detected movement in the valley. The stragglers had still not gone past the valley and as such were brought under coordinated fire. On receipt of distress signal from the militants, the helicopters returned. By then it had been established that the posts were not equipped with AA guns. As such the helicopters came closer and plastered the two posts with ATGMs with a vengeance for next thirty minutes. Trigger happy NATO soldiers didn’t remove their fingers of the triggers to make sure that all the occupants of two posts died. 17 soldiers including one Major and one subaltern died and 16 soldiers received serious injuries. Seven soldiers from Company HQ who were on their way to evacuate the dead and injured were also targeted and killed taking the total to 24.
Taking a deeper look into the gory episode one finds that the timings were carefully selected on the premise that even the two sentries on duty would have dozed off. In order to obfuscate facts the NATO has taken a plea as an afterthought that helicopters responded to the hostile fire coming from the posts. There was no reason for the defenders to open fire at the helicopters without any provocation. If one agrees to the NATO’s preposterous contention for argument sake, the fast moving and highly maneuverable helicopters with anti-armor and anti-aircraft protection could have easily moved away out of the range of the weapons deployed on ground. Moreover, if the fire did come, it meant the entire lot was alert and in battle positions. If so, how come so many got killed and injured without incurring any damage to the attacking helicopters?
If it was unintentional, as claimed by NATO leadership, why couldn’t the helicopters equipped with night fighting capability see Pakistani flag fluttering on top of a post and soldiers dressed in uniform, particularly when each flying helicopter/jet/cargo plane carry marked map showing the border and border posts? If the helicopters came in response to the call made by ANA, how come the attackers attacked the static posts atop a ridgeline? In these ten years the NATO should have learnt that Taliban never take up static defences and that too on hilltops. They prefer caves and valleys. If the helicopters made a mistake once, why was the mistake repeated? If the map reference of Salala posts was marked wrongly by BCC or passed wrongly by NATO liaison officer, why the massacre continued for ninety minutes when NATO HQ was frenetically informed on hotline at multiple levels including GHQ to get the fire stopped forthwith? Had the purpose been to demolish the two posts, it could have been done within few minutes using ATGMs and that too from 3 km distance and not for ninety minutes.
Since the real purpose was to give covering fire to the infiltrators, heads of the troops manning the posts were pinned down to facilitate unobserved and unhindered movement of infiltrators carrying their extra baggage on donkeys. It will be sheer under estimation of NATO power to take nearly two hours to destroy posts made of cement blocks and strengthened by sand bags. It was a willful massacre and it didn’t end on 26 November. The terrorists that manged to sneak in on that night are now busy carrying out terrorist attacks in Kyhber Pakhtunkwa, Khyber Agency and other nearby areas.
The inquest carried out by ISAF’s Brig Stephen Clark apportions equal blame on both sides and wrongfully maintains that the fire was in self-defence and in retaliation to the provocative fire by the posts. The US accepts several ommissions made by attackers but terms all of them coincidental and affixes partial responsibility on Pakistan. It is inconcievable that the ISAF with best technology was unaware of the existence of two posts. The US officials consistently stated that the attack was unintentional before and during the course of inquiry thereby influencing the investigating team. The US wants Pakistan Army to accept this factually incorrect report based on half-truths and forget about the incident and get back to normal business. It says so because its previous incursions on four occasions were taken lightly by Pakistan. It wants the extra judicial murder of 24 soldiers to be also ignored but refuses to accepts its fault and to render apology since it hurts its ego.
Mercifully, the Army and the government are on one page. Not only the report has been rejected, the government has taken bold and appropriate steps to checkmate America’s bellicosity and aggressive unilateralism. New terms of engagement have been chalked out by Parliamentary Committee and hopefully Pak-US relations would become more even handed and based on equality, trust and mutual respect.