Tuesday June 25, 2024

Embarrass me more

By Shahzad Chaudhry
May 27, 2016

In the 1979 Afghan war the Soviet air force planes soon began violating the Pakistani border. Their targets were the refugee camps all long the Pakistani border which they knew were feeding and sustaining the mujahideen resistance. The Soviet Union was then the second pole in a bipolar world. The Pakistan Air Force reacted but never with the commitment that meant to secure its sovereignty.

One, it was against a superpower so there would be implicit consequences; and two, they never had the means to react efficiently enough. There were few radars and the knowledge of someone ‘violating the sanctity of the airspace’ came only when the airspace had already been truly and thoroughly violated. Too little and too late was always waved away by the Soviets even when someone once fired a warning shot along the cockpit of one such violator trying to force-land him at an airbase .

In 1983 the US decided to arm Pakistan with F-16s. And a year later, after the plane was sufficiently operationalised, the PAF joined the war with some aplomb. It shot seven Soviet/Afghan aircraft over the next five years – till 1989 when the Soviet Union finally withdrew from Afghanistan and set into motion the era of the sole superpower. The PAF patrolled the western skies pervasively and deterred the Soviets from violating at will. The PAF did not lose any aircraft – except one which was a result of a fratricide (an F-16 shot by another F-16).

The Soviets became wary of PAF presence and reduced the incidence of bombing, totally giving up on it when the PAF was present in the skies. The engagements thus became rare, hence the fewer kills over a long period of hostility.

What is of essence here is the ‘rules of engagement’ ordained for the pilots: one, never engage in the Afghan airspace, only do so when the violating aircraft are in the Pakistani airspace; and two, engage only when assured that the wreckage would fall in our area, never on the Afghan land.

The rationale was simple: don’t be caught violating the Afghan border or making an exhibit available to the Soviets in the form of a wreckage, giving them the strategic justification for an offensive reaction – this could range from a targeted one-off offensive riposte to a full-on continuation of their Afghan invasion into Pakistan aiming to reach the dreaded ‘warm waters’ of the Gulf through Balochistan.

With all wreckage falling on Pakistani soil we could go to the world and reinforce how our sovereignty was being violated. The Soviets thus always remained on a diplomatic defensive, and maybe were restrained from extending their adventure into Pakistan. We paid another kind of price though, far more injurious, making the above only a preamble to what was to follow.

What followed was the ‘OBL’ exhibit found on Pakistani soil and displayed to the entire world leaving us guessing if it was something to be embarrassed about. It pains one particularly because wherever the public diplomacy circuit has taken us we have vehemently contrived rationales to explain such deviations, hoping that some rationality may also somehow seep through the official brain trust – forget the abiding pain that such cavalier approach to national security has caused to the nation itself. Seemingly, all has been in vain.

Because, what followed OBL was Mullah Mansour, taken out in Balochistan – not in any god-forsaken corner of the contiguous Fata belt where the writ of the state is only sporadic. That would have at least given us face-saving argument. No, here he was in Balochistan, blazing the holy trail to the ‘Quetta Shura’. There is another story doing the rounds that he was actually travelling from Iran into Afghanistan and was betrayed by the Iranian intelligence. This story goes that the Iranians did that as a favour because of the Modi visit, appeasing Indian sensitivities on the Kalbhushan Yadav episode. Whatever may be the case, he was found in broad daylight on Pakistani soil and became an exhibit.

I don’t even want to recount the car rental company of Quetta who somehow knew he was crossing Taftan and were ready to motor him into Afghanistan. What facilitation – despite there being an equally accessible border between Iran and Afghanistan. Or is Iran far better at controlling its borders?

Just a while back our ‘old man’ at national security revealed that the Quetta Shura was indeed our baby and that was how we exercised control and influence over them. The Mansour episode just proved that contention except that the element of influence was a thing of the past. This was a typical case of one becoming a victim of his rhetoric. Influence exercised through familial extensions is at best fluid and unworthy of strategic consideration. That is why the peace talks have failed; because Mansour always had his own agenda. As will the next man. And that will complete the cycle beyond which the broadly termed entity, the Taliban, will fragment further.

This will fail everyone lost on the road to discovering peace, including the US. The more the Taliban fragment, the more will others – including the IS – gain. The more Al-Qaeda and the IS gain, the more will the US lose. Forget the region; it is in a perpetual mess and will remain so for a long time to come. Back at home, Pakistan is a mess – a royal mess; gains by Operation Zarb-e-Azb brought to naught.

The esteemed foreign secretary, a man of great motivation, recently desired that Afghanistan rather than Pakistan would do better to do something about their Taliban problem. It must be said that the FS got what he desired. A few more and Afghanistan may well be on the road to doing something about it.

Wait a while, we will soon have Messrs Haqqani and Zwahiri too paraded dead or alive on the Pakistani soil. What bloody embarrassment.

The writer is a retired air-vice marshal, former ambassador and a security and political analyst.