Beyond the Khyber Pass

Pakistan has closed a logistics crossing point after accusing NATO of a  helicopter attack that killed at least 20 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border early Saturday. A similar incident last year resulted in a NATO apology.


Pakistani officials at the Torkham checkpoint at the Khyber Pass said Saturday afternoon that they had suspended all movement of NATO tankers and supply trucks heading into Afghanistan.

A similar incident occurred more than a year ago … at the time, Pakistan responded by closing the Torkham checkpoint for 11 days, effectively stopping the movement of trucks and tankers ferrying fuel and supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan. The border shutdown created a massive bottleneck, which paved the way for a series of militant attacks on parked NATO oil tankers and trucks across Pakistan. More than 150 NATO trucks were set ablaze or damaged in those attacks. At least six people were killed.

Bill Roggio notes that the US has pursued the Taliban into Pakistan before, adding “Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps is known to support the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Two of the most high-profile incidents occurred in 2008, and three others took place in 2010. The first took place in June 2008, when US troops pursued a Taliban force from Kunar into Mohmand, and killed 11 fighters. The Pakistani government claimed that the US killed Frontier Corps troops, but the US released video of the incident showing the Taliban being targeted as they fled from Kunar into Mohmand. Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps is known to support the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The second incident took place in Khyber in November 2008, when US forces launched rocket attacks and ground strikes into the Tirah Valley, a known haven for al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Lashkar-e-Islam. Seven people were reported killed and three were wounded in the strikes.

The last three such incidents took place in the fall of 2010, when US helicopter attacked Haqqani Network fighters crossing back into the Pakistani tribal agencies of North Waziristan and Kurram after the terror group attacked US bases in Khost and Paktia provinces. More than 50 Haqqani Network fighters were reported killed in the Kurram attacks. Pakistan claimed two Frontier Corps troops were killed.


This latest crisis comes against the background of possibly serious rifts within the Pakistani establishment. Islamabad’s ambassador to the US allegedly sent a secret memorandum to Admiral Mike Mullen pleading for help in reining in the Pakistani military. Pakistan has been conducting war games with China featuring Uighur “terrorists” as the probable enemy.

As ties with Washington have deteriorated this year, some Pakistani leaders have suggested China could fill the economic, diplomatic and military void if America scales back its commitment. …

Thursday’s dramatic war games in the dusty, hilly Punjab countryside were the kind of Pakistani public display of international anti-terror cooperation that Washington could only dream of, given the environment of mistrust and suspicion with Pakistan.

These developments would be worrisome enough in isolation. But they are not isolated. Events in Southwest Asia are linked very directly to those in the Middle East and Europe.

The renewed tension in Southwest Asia comes at a time when the “Arab Spring” has reached a difficult moment. The Associated Press reports that Egypt’s economy is collapsing. Neil Shearing, chief emerging markets economist with Capital Economics said of Egypt, “there’s enough money left in the coffers to get through the year, but not much beyond that. Crunch time is two to three months away.”

The common denominator in both the Middle East and Southwest Asia are of course Russia and Iran. Around them revolve a constellation of other players.


Teheran is an active player in both the Afghan and Middle Eastern theaters of war. As to Moscow, the former Russian republics are now an alternate route for supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, badly needed given the US need to break the Pakistan stranglehold on supplies to forces there. But neither Teheran  nor Moscow are wholly friendly to the US. Russia has just declared its intention to challenge the US in Europe over the installation of an anti-missile system there and has effectively withdrawn from the Conventional Forces Treaty (CFE) in Europe.  The Cold War has not quite returned yet, but rumor of it can be heard in the distance.

Iran in the meantime, is engaged in an actual low-intensity war with the United States.  This has been going on in Iraq and now, within Iran itself. Recently, the Christian Science Monitor says that “a smoldering covert war pitting the United States against Iran took a new turn this week as Iranian officials announced the arrests of a dozen ‘CIA spies’ they said were targeting the country’s nuclear program.”

The potential “CIA arrests” followed reports earlier in the week of other arrests in Iran. There were also reports that Hezbollah, the Iran-affiliated Shiite militia in Lebanon, has arrested alleged CIA informants.

The latest Iranian allegations could not be verified, and the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment, as it does as a rule on “operational activities.” But the charges were the latest installment in a growing list of covert operations – or accusations claiming such operations. That list includes the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, explosions at Iranian factories and military installations, cyberattacks targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities, and – on the other side – the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.


The Iranian plan to attack the Saudis hints at another thread — the Kingdom too has been a player in Southwest Asia since the days of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.  All the players in recent history from 1980 are now running into each other in the dark. Thus the events of the Arab Spring are intimately linked to the outcome of the Great Game in Southwest Asia. The reunion is complete and probable players in the secret drama are the United States, Russia, China, Iran, Europe and Turkey.  Among them the possibilities for intrigue are endless.

One indicator of how things line up behind the scenes was given by the recent refusal of China and Russia to support European-led sanctions against Iran.  So Russia and China are approximately one side and the US and Europe and are approximately on the other. Between them a host of players flit according to their advantage across the whole chessboard of the Eurasian continent.

The situation now appears to be very complex. Turkey has weighed in against Syria. Russia has moved against the US in Europe. Iran is waiting for a US departure from Iraq. Iraq has expressed concerns about the disintegrating situation in Syria. Europe is on the verge of bankruptcy. The Arab League is leaning on Damascus. The Arab League’s members are themselves beset by internal dissent, and one of their key members, Egypt, is on the brink of possible starvation. And America is “leading from behind”.


Just who is ahead in this complicated set of linkages and counterlinkages is a difficult question to unravel.  Everyone seems vulnerable at some level. About all that can be reasonably said is that the whole situation is extremely volatile. If an economic crash hits Europe it will unleash waves of unrest throughout the Middle East and even Iran and Turkey as economies go under. On the other hand it is entirely possible that something irrational may happen in Damascus, Teheran, Pakistan or even North Korea that will anticipate the economic crisis or feed into it. The whole looks like an accident waiting to happen. How fortunate the world is to be led in this critical period by such giants as Barroso, Sarkozy, Rompuy, Merkel, Cameron and Obama — with Putin grinning in the wings.

The “smart adhocracy” of the Administration has bred ever more crises without without resolving any of them. It came to office promising a new era of peace and international harmony after the bad years of the Bush administration.  But none of its touted Grand Bargains, engagements or containments ever came to a successful fruition. What it did instead was pile wood upon wood with fires smoldering under each pile. Was it a failure in strategy or was the President simply overwhelmed by history and the legacy of Carter, Reagan, Clinton and the Bushes?

The world is facing what may be hazardous New Year.

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