5 years, 5 months ago
On October 16th, The New York Times reported an astonishing account of repeated shelling of U.S. and Afghan forces from across the Pakistani border that has been near-continuous since May, 2011.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan — American and Afghan soldiers near the border with Pakistan have faced a sharply increased volume of rocket fire from Pakistani territory in the past six months, putting them at greater risk even as worries over the disintegrating relationship between the United States and Pakistan constrain how they can strike back.
Ground-to-ground rockets fired within Pakistan have landed on or near American military outposts in one Afghan border province at least 55 times since May, according to interviews with multiple American officers and data released in the past week. Last year, during the same period, there were two such attacks.
May is also when members of a Navy Seals team killed Osama bin Laden in the house where he lived near a Pakistani military academy, plunging American-Pakistani relations to a new low. Since then, the escalation in cross-border barrages has fueled frustration among officers and anger among soldiers at front-line positions who suspect, but cannot prove, a Pakistani government role.
The government’s relations with the United States frayed further after senior American officials publicly accused Pakistan of harboring and helping guerrillas and terrorists. Last month, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, called the insurgents who attacked the American Embassy in the Afghan capital “a veritable arm” of the ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence service.
Pakistani officials have repeatedly denied aiding fighters for the Taliban and the Haqqani militant network, who operate on both sides of the border. They insist they try to prevent cross-border incursions or violence.
Funny coincidence. U.S. bases get shelled from Pakistan beginning the same month that U.S. special forces entered Pakistan and killed Osama Bin Laden. OK, well, I suppose that one could argue that this is a not-altogether-unexpected consequence of sticking a steel-toed boot right up the backside of Pakistan and laughing as we dump Bin Laden into the ocean for fish food. (All properly according to Islamic hoyle, of course). So we should not be surprised.
The truly troubling part about this is that there is no apparent Administration response or any, apparent guidance from the chain of command for these units who must sit there and take it.
When taking fire from Afghanistan, they said, they return fire with barrages of high-explosive and white phosphorus artillery rounds. (The burning effects of white phosphorus, they said, can detonate rockets waiting on launchers; for this reason, white phosphorus falls within rules guiding the soldiers’ use of force.)
When receiving fire from Pakistan, they said, they do not return fire with white phosphorus and fire far fewer high-explosive rounds. Attack helicopters and aircraft are also less likely to fire ordnance the closer the firing position is to the border, they said, even if it is on the Afghan side.
Several soldiers complained of what they called the “politics” limiting their choices. “We’re just sitting out here taking fire,” one soldier said. “If they want us to do our jobs, let us do our jobs.”
Senior officers described a tactical and strategic puzzle.
On one hand, soldiers said a principle of any modern military defense is that they patrol to and beyond the range of weapons systems that can menace them, and, in this case, at least to the border of the nation that the United States, in essence, has underwritten. On the other, heavy return fire against the firing positions inside Afghanistan has not prevented the attacks from continuing, so it is not clear that more fire into Pakistan would stop the cross-border firing, either.
And Colonel Bohnemann noted a complicated history. Afghan units have patrolled to the border, he said, and then been fired on by Pakistani military units who claimed they mistook the Afghans for insurgents. That fighting included Pakistani artillery fire.
The risk of having an American patrol face similar fire has been reasonable grounds for caution when planning sweeps near the border, and when returning fire over it, he said.
“Am I frustrated?” he asked. “Yes. Would I like to fire more? Yes. But do I want to be sure not to escalate out of frustration? Absolutely.”
This is simply indefensible. As I have said on many occasions, our Afghan strategy is really no strategy at all but a charade for political purposes: the appearance of force and toughness but lacking in the kind of metrics necessary for victory (higher force levels, robust rules of engagement, proper focus on appropriate lines of effort, etc…). This Administration has played politics with Afghanistan since Day One and one of the obvious results is that we have Americans sitting on the Pak border forced to absorb indirect fire from Pakistan without any, meaningful way of defending themselves.