NATO, responding Nov. 26 to a U.S.-Afghan patrol's request for air support after triggering a border clash, inadvertently killed Pakistani troops. Both the U.S. and Pakistan governments are investigating exactly how 24 Pakistani soldiers manning border outposts were drawn into the nighttime air strike.
But the incident brings to mind chilling memories of a similar friendly fire attack, 44 years earlier, involving two allies -- that had U.S. forces on the receiving end. The 1967 attack claimed 34 American lives -- leading to the only time a Medal of Honor was awarded for bravery under "friendly" fire.
Despite the heated emotions the attack generated in Washington in its aftermath, an important, albeit tacit, understanding was realized by the two allies. It is one Islamabad should embrace, despite the heated emotions in play there in the aftermath of this incident.
In early June 1967, hostilities were about to erupt in the Middle East. A U.S. Navy intelligence gathering ship, USS Liberty, having an electronic eavesdropping capability, was sent to the eastern Mediterranean to monitor communications among the soon-to-be-warring parties.
On June 5, after Arab troop movements suggested Egypt, Jordan and Syria were preparing to attack, Israel struck first. Although an ally of Israel, the United States remained neutral.
On June 8, Liberty was in international waters, just 6 to 7 miles off the coasts of Israel and Egypt. In response to Arab complaints at the United Nations the United States was helping Israel, Washington ordered Liberty to operate no closer than 120 miles of those coastlines. The order, however, was never received.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union supported the Arab tri-party effort to supplant U.S.-Israeli influence in the region.
At 1:57 p.m., June 8, Israeli decision-makers -- saying they were unable to identify Liberty and that they thought it was Egyptian -- authorized an air attack. Nearby Israeli gunboats joined in.
Smoke billowed from hits on Liberty, obfuscating visibility for both sides. At one point, Liberty's commanding officer, Cmdr. William McGonagle, saw an Israeli flag on an attacking boat. He was caught in a "perfect storm" of conflicting interests -- defending his ship on the one hand, not wishing to kill "friendlies" on the other, all while desperately attempting to communicate his ship's identity to a "friendly enemy."
But the attack was so intense, McGonagle had to turn his attention to his top priority -- defending his ship to limit U.S. casualties. For his efforts, he later received the Medal of Honor.
After two hours, the Israelis broke off the attack. Only then they said they discovered the ship's identity. Israeli officials immediately notified the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv as to what had happened. Forty minutes later, the same Israeli gunboats which had attacked Liberty, returned to offer assistance. The offer was declined.
Investigations into the Liberty incident by both the U.S. and Israeli governments determined the attack was a case of mistaken identity -- the result of a series of blunders by others on both sides who weren't involved in the actual fighting. However, for some Liberty crewmember survivors, emotions ran high as they said they believed the attack was intentional.
While the fog of war can obfuscate intentions, the fact remains no coherent rationale has ever been offered to suggest what the Israelis stood to gain by an intentional attack as it was far outweighed by all the negative fallout that followed.
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was livid over the incident, communicating with the Israeli ambassador two days later, "The USS Liberty was flying the American flag and its identification was clearly indicated in large white letters and numerals on its hull … Experience demonstrates that both the flag and the identification number of the vessel were readily visible from the air. … Accordingly, there is every reason to believe that the USS Liberty was identified, or at least her nationality determined, by Israeli aircraft approximately one hour before the attack."
In the end, however, both governments realized their best interests dictated the incident quickly be put behind them to focus on a more serious threat to both -- the Soviet Union's effort to maximize its influence in the Middle East by supporting Arab efforts to minimize U.S.-Israeli interests.
Emotions remain high in Pakistan following the Nov. 26 incident, despite U.S. President Barack Obama's assurances the attack was unintentional. Whether Islamabad is seeking to placate an outraged population or is blinded by its own rage is unclear. But one thing is -- the steps Islamabad is taking in response to the incident aren't in the best interests of both countries.
Without awaiting results of the investigations, Islamabad has evicted the United States from its drone operations facility in Pakistan. That action won't prove detrimental to the CIA's Islamist targeting program in Pakistan's tribal areas for, in anticipation of a shaky U.S.-Pakistan alliance, backup facilities had already been built in Afghanistan.
More worrisome, however, is Pakistan's closing of a vital supply line entry point to Afghanistan. This will have a very detrimental impact for two reasons. First, obviously, it delays badly needed supplies for NATO; second, it presents militants with an attractive target of opportunity created by the massive build-up of trucks laden with fuel and supplies parked and awaiting entry into Afghanistan.
Militants wasted no time in pursuing this target, launching a rocket attack Dec. 9 at vehicles parked at a temporary terminal in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan. Within minutes, at least 20 oil tankers were destroyed. While it is unknown whether al-Qaida or Taliban were responsible, the attack fits Taliban's modus operandi.
Also in protest of the Nov. 26 incident, Islamabad has refused to participate in an international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn Dec. 5. The focus of the conference was to map out a road to peace and future international commitments to Afghanistan. Participation by two parties in particular was essential to the conference's success -- Pakistan and the Taliban. Both were "no shows."
The Pakistani leadership should harbor no doubt as to what kind of world lies ahead for its citizens should Islamic extremists, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, not be eliminated.
In 2009, after moving into Pakistan's Swat Valley and ousting officials, including police, lawyers and politicians -- i.e., everyone essential to operating an organized government -- Pakistan's Taliban reached an agreement by which it would govern the region in exchange for its promise to disarm and not extend its reach further.
It never disarmed and continued its offensive toward Islamabad. Only after Islamabad launched a military campaign against it was stability restored to the area. But, in the interim, residents living in Taliban-controlled Swat Valley and elsewhere were subjected to its brutality -- such as evidenced in a video of a woman beaten in public for refusing to marry a Taliban leader.
Islamabad well understands, the best treatment for the Islamic extremist cancer seeking to consume it is to gain control of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This is the semi-autonomous tribal region along Pakistan's northwest border with Afghanistan used as a safe-haven for militants on both sides moving between countries.
As Islamabad further understands, the best time for it to establish this control -- a mission it has been unwilling to embark upon for several reasons -- is now, while NATO is still actively involved. For there will come a time when Pakistan will be left to go it alone in dealing with the Islamist threat it faces.
Therefore, Islamabad must work hard to put the Nov. 26 incident behind it, if it truly seeks to negate the Islamist threat, while maximum international resources are still available to help achieve that result.
What we must come to understand is, if Islamabad fails to adopt the approach the United States took after the Israeli attack in working together to eliminate a common threat, then, perhaps, Pakistan's true interests lie not in eliminating, but nurturing, Islamic extremism.
This is a position more outside observers are embracing due to Islamabad's reluctance to seek treatment. By continuing to avoid such treatment, however, Islamabad may eventually find Pakistani democracy on life support -- with Islamists looking to pull the plug. At that point, not even a "stat" call to the West can save it.
(James. G. Zumwalt, is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who heads consulting firm Admiral Zumwalt and Consultants, Inc. He has published many articles in various publications and is author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will -- Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields.")
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
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