By Brig Imran Malik

The mayhem at Salala will have multidimensional ramifications. It swept away much more than the lives of twenty four brave Pakistani soldiers. It also took away with it the prospects of a meaningful continuation of the US-Pak alliance in the Af-Pak region and the long shot probability of a US/NATO/ISAF victory there. Its impact on President Obama’s re-election bid could be debilitating, even decisive! The effects of the fateful moment when this horrendous decision was taken to attack the known Pakistani outposts Volcano and Boulder in Salala, Mohmand Agency, will haunt President Obama, his Government and military for a very long time to come.

The Chivalry and Probity Dimension. The gory incidents at Salala reflect very poorly on the US and its military. No matter what spin the US gives to it now these will always remain to be unprovoked acts of sheer raw cruel savage wanton uncalled for brutality. Period. They came stealthily in the dark of the night and attacked those unsuspecting allied soldiers whose positions had been given to them as a sacred military trust – no professional force can sink deeper and lower than that!

These attacks do no service to the US military’s reputation as a proud professional outfit that upholds the lofty norms of soldiering and to its sense of good old chivalry and military probity. Pakistan may have lost twenty four brave men but in the bargain the US and its much vaunted military has clearly lost face, as well as the moral and ethical high ground it is prone to claim so haughtily ad nauseum. It is currently floundering around to find a plausible excuse to justify this macabre atrocity.

The Political Dimension. The US protégés – President Asif Ali Zardari and ex Ambassador Hussain Haqqani – were in the dock for having written that infamous memo to the US authorities in the wake of the Osama bin Laden debacle. This act and the servile services they offered to the US in return for their maintenance in power by it probably falls in the purview of treason against Pakistan! Predictably the matter exploded in the print and electronic media. The nation was first stunned and then in uproar. The matter now rests with the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The Salala attacks were intended to take the heat off these US protégés and they may have succeeded, albeit temporarily. 

The Military Dimension.  One aim of these attacks could have been to demonstrate to the Pakistan Armed Forces that the US/NATO/ISAF retained overwhelming superiority in technology and strength and could very seriously degrade them when and if required. It could also be viewed as a not too subtle reminder to the Pakistan military and intelligence leaderships that the US too had red lines – on and off the battlefield – which it would like to be respected faithfully. Could one of the red lines be the maintenance and retention in power of its protégés? Were they then really under some existential threat from the military and the intelligence leadership?

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It could also be seen as a possible trap laid by the US/NATO/ISAF forces to evoke a response from the Pakistan Armed Forces. Were they to react aggressively causing US/NATO/ISAF casualties all hell would probably have broken  loose! They would have retaliated massively and disproportionately going cross border to seriously degrade/demolish Pakistan’s military capabilities once and for all. This would remove all hurdles and irritants in their way to attaining their national interests in the region and beyond.

Pakistan’s responses could be at either ends of the spectrum. Pakistan seems to have adopted the strategy of indirect approach at the moment with its reactions being essentially asymmetric in nature – that is that it would not confront the USNATO/ISAF head on militarily but would seek and exploit those US/NATO/ISAF vulnerabilities where it could exert subtle pressures for disproportionately stronger strategic effects. This would help it safeguard its interests without going to war. Therefore Pakistan has opted to block their logistic supply routes, has asked them to vacate the Shamsi Airbase, has stopped all cooperation in the military, operational, intelligence, logistics, technical and administrative support fields and has even conveyed her refusal to attend the Bonn Conference. This approach secures Pakistan’s military capabilities, presently, and at the same time creates enough pressures on the US/NATO/ISAF to force them to respect its national interests.

The Nuclear Dimension.  Pakistan Armed Forces could have taken effective and equally violent action against the aggressors at Salala. This would have invariably drawn the US/NATO/ISAF into massive retaliatory attacks against the Pakistan Armed Forces. However such a scenario is pregnant with extremely serious and dire ramifications. A probable and quick degradation of Pakistan’s military forces would mean an existential threat to it forcing it to resort to its nuclear arsenal fairly early in the battle. Pakistan’s recourse to the nuclear option would be inversely proportional to the degradation of her armed forces; the higher the degradation of the Pakistani Armed Forces the lower would be its nuclear threshold and the closer the region would be to a nuclear conflagration and total disaster!

The onus of responsibility of such a nuclear flare up would rest with the US/NATO/ISAF who appear to have no sense of the gravity of their ill-considered decisions and actions. Pakistan may have shown more maturity and sense of responsibility by responding in a low key manner at Salala. But this may be the end of Pakistan’s patience as well. Its civil and military leaderships will lose all credibility and face were they to continue to respond in this fashion any further. COAS General A P Kayani has already ordered “guns free” for his forces – leaving it to the local commanders to proactively deal with the aggressors as the local situation warrants. This has raised the ante tremendously. Under existentialist threats Pakistan will always retain the options to threaten US and western strategic assets/interests in the South-Central Asian Region (SCAR) and the Greater Middle East Region (GMER) thus spreading the war zone to unintended dimensions. Could such  a conflict suck in China and India on opposing sides? Where would Russia and Iran stand? Could it spark off a regional Armageddon?  Could that potentially escalate into the extra regional dimension? Even a global one? (WW III?)  Conceivable? It is now upto the US and its military to determine the levels of violence they would like to see in the region and potentially beyond it. Discretion, for the US/NATO/ISAF, may yet be the better part of valour!

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And such a situation would make Al Qaeda and the Taliban the happiest people on earth – seeing their enemies and ostensible allies killing one another rather than gunning for  them!  Ironic, poetic justice or just plain stupid?

The International Dimension: for this attack at Salala lies in it’s timing. The aim could be to send an unmistakable message to the military and civil leaderships of Pakistan to follow the US script at the Bonn Conference. Stung by its spectacular failure at the Istanbul Conference due to the strong positions taken up by Pakistan, Iran China and Russia against its ill-considered attempt to fashion a security and trade (New Silk Road Project) mechanism for Eurasia and the SCAR it has now become most imperative for the US to have a successful Bonn Conference. It wants to still push for the same security and trade regime while seeking a regional security mechanism specifically for Afghanistan. It would like to even formalize India’s role in the region. Alas this has also failed to materialize as Pakistan has already announced a boycott of the Bonn Conference. International efforts to get Pakistan to Bonn have thus far failed. If the Pakistan Government shows any weak nerves now then its future too would become extremely suspect.

The Obama Dimension.  Another plausible reason for Salala could be the gathering nervousness of President Obama in his re-election bid. With the Iowa Caucus in February getting closer by the minute he needs to show some substantial victories for his efforts/policies in Afghanistan. His diplomatic, military and intelligence chiefs have failed him miserably in the Afghan war. Thus far they have failed to win the unconditional support of Pakistan – which alone can cut the Afghan Gordian Knot – have failed to subdue much less destroy Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, Tehrik Taliban Pakistan etc and have thus singularly failed to secure American and western interests in the region. What do they then have to show for their decade long travails and efforts in the Af-Pak region? What will President Obama present to his people on his re-election campaign trail? There has to be at the least one stunning success in at least one of the three dimensions- diplomatic, military and intelligence!  Success at the Bonn Conference or a military victory against the militants (eg against the Haqqani NW in NWA) or even against Pakistan or the capture or killing of Al Zawahiri or Mullah Omar etc could give President Obama something to take to the American people before the Iowa Caucus. The US feels now that all three avenues for success – diplomatic, military, intelligence have been blocked by Pakistan’s intransigence. And so now in his re-election campaign Obama can demonize and blame Pakistan for all US failures in the region.

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 But the US is looking at the wrong places for the right answers.    

The US needs to sit back and take a realistic and unemotional reappraisal of the whole situation. It must  realize that it has failed in all three dimensions – diplomatic, military and intelligence. Therefore it must have a policy re-think and make a direly needed and radical correction in its strategic direction – from New Delhi to Islamabad! It must understand that the road to success in Afghanistan, the Af-Pak region and the SCAR goes through Islamabad and not through New Delhi. But so far it is failing to see the elephant in the room – India! It must take the Indian monkey off Pakistan’s back. It must help Pakistan secure her vital interests in Afghanistan by keeping India out of there. This will also spare Pakistan the jitters it feels while thinking of facing a two front war with India and make her more amenable to US persuasions. There will be a definite and quantum change in Pakistan’s attitude once it is assured of her interests in Afghanistan. The US must also recognize the fact that in the present circumstances India just does not have the credentials to project power beyond her borders on a sustainable basis. India has still not achieved greatness as a power and no matter how sorely the US wants to, it still cannot thrust greatness upon her. It is undoable. India will have to achieve greatness by herself. Where the British, the Soviets and the US-led west have bitten the dust at the height of their coercive powers what chance does a fledgling wanna-be regional power have of achieving success? 

Time for a policy rethink and a correction in strategic direction by the US is nigh! Else more Salalas could potentially threaten the region and beyond leaving the US to join the British and the Soviets as yet another failure of a Super Power to defeat the Afghans!

Would India want to get on this ignominious list too?