Options for Pakistan after Qassem Solemani

When I first read Lt Gen Shahid Aziz’s book Yeh Khamoshi Kahan Tak? (How long this silence?) in 2013, I was a little sceptical about his assertion that he did not know about a US amphibious landing on the Balochistan coastline as a prelude the invasion of Afghanistan, when he was the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) and that he learnt it much later (p. 240). But when I read Shuja Nawaz account of the US Naval Expeditionary Force under Brigadier General Mattis (Mad Dog Mattis became Trump’s short lived Secretary Defense) in The Battle for Pakistan (pp. 92-94) that an American Naval task Force actually transited through Pakistan to invade Afghanistan all the pieces fell into place.

After the 9/11 attacks a small team of CIA agents were sent to link up with Northern Alliance commanders to spearhead the invasion of Afghanistan. Simultaneously a naval expeditionary force was sent to provide muscle to this CIA component tasked to conduct covert operations. Nawaz calls these smaller surgical operations. CIA actually was buying the loyalties of the local commanders and was carrying sacks full of dollars.

Marine Brig Gen John Mattis (Mad Dog Mattis was briefly Trump’s Secretary Defense) the commander of Task Force 58 or TF58 “was tasked initially to conduct raids in Southern Afghanistan. Later the task force was instructed to take and establish a forward operating base or FOB.” This base was “shifted back and forth from Camp Rhino (a 6,400-foot-long dirt strip some 400 miles inland to Kandahar to Herat to Shindad and back to Rhino.” Camp Rhino was the private airstrip owned by the Crown Prince of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (MbR is now the ruler of Dubai) near Kandahar for hunting Houbara Bustard.  

More importantly TF58 was provided landing beaches and access to an airfield in Balochistan with the approval of Pakistan Army. Major General Farooq Ahmed Khan, DG in the JS HQ Chaklala was the point person for the Americans. Farooq coordinated the details with the Military Operations (MO) Directorate in the GHQ, the Pakistan Air Force and Pakistan Navy. MO technically comes under the CGS Secretariat then why was Shahid Aziz out of the loop? The liaison officer with the Marines was Lt Col Asad ‘Genghis’ Khan. The beachhead was established on the Mekran coast. From where the marines were transported to Pasni airfield. From Pasni they were taken by road to Jacobabad, from where they were flown to establish Camp Rhino in Southern Afghanistan. In order to keep everything secret and avoid adverse domestic comment all movement took place at night and the Americans were not allowed to move during daylight hours.

So much for the ‘first US invasion of Pakistan,’ as Shuja Nawaz would like to call it. Can there be a second invasion of Pakistan? This question has become all the more relevant after the killing of the Iranian Quds Force General Qassem Solemani. Iran is bound to retaliate to avenge itself of the death of its general. How will they do it is open to conjecture: Attacks in the Persian Gulf on western cargo ships, blocking of the Strait of Hormuz, attacking US assets elsewhere in the world, cyber-attacks – anything is possible. What would happen if the US do if Iran launches a counter strike somewhere? Would it retaliate in kind or would it up the ante. Would it involve Israel perhaps? Or launch a physical attack on Iran? In case it does, would it like to stage through Balochistan?  I’m sure military planners in the Pentagon and Tehran must be poring over the maps in the operation rooms and considering options.

The bordering area next to Pakistan is Sistan and Balochistan. It is largely a desert like region. Major cities of Iran are far off. The capital Tehran is 1497 km and 15 hours by road from the border town Zahedan.   The land route from the port of Gawadar to Chahbahar is approximately 345 km (5 hours 44 minutes).  The element of surprise would certainly be lost if this route is adopted.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken to Gen Bajwa two days ago. Later he tweeted that he spoke to Pakistan’s army chief about “U.S. defensive action” to kill the Iranian top general, stating that “our resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities, and partners will not waver.” This could be a tacit warning to remind him not fall out of line. Incidentally the International Military Education Training (IMET) has been formally revived as a sweetener. Pakistan is walking a tight rope. Any escalation in the region is bound to draw it into the eye of the storm. Better sense needs to prevail. On their end Pakistani leaders should keep the national interests uppermost in their minds before making any commitments.               

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