AFGHAN and Western officials claim NATO and Afghan forces came under fire from across the Pakistan border on Saturday before they called in a deadly airstrike on two Pakistani military posts, in an incident that has left U.S.-Pakistan relations in tatters.
Pakstan’s military denied firing on North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, calling the “unprovoked” raid on the border posts an “irresponsible act.”
The sharp spike in tensions threw fresh doubt on US efforts to coax greater cooperation from Pakistan in rooting out militants on its side of the Afghan border and in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table to try to wind down the 10-year-old war.
Current and former US officials said the timing of the crisis couldn’t be worse for the Obama administration, which plans to accelerate the drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan next year and then possibly shift to a more limited train, advise and assist mission. A sustained breakdown in cooperation with Pakistan could make it more difficult for the US to make and sustain security gains, particularly in eastern provinces, and thereby make it harder to pull out.
The Pakistani army questioned why NATO undertook a sustained two-hour attack on well-known border positions, involving helicopters and fighter jets.
A Western official said 25 Pakistani soldiers were dead as of last night. The Pakistani army put the death toll at 24.
“No first fire came from Pakistan troops,” said a senior Pakistani military official. “But they did respond in self-defense after NATO gunship helicopters and jet fighters carried out unprovoked firing.”
In retaliation, Pakistan indefinitely shut NATO supply lines through the country and said it was re-evaluating its military, intelligence and diplomatic links with the US. Authorities there gave the US two weeks to pull out of a Pakistani air base that Washington has used in the past to launch drone strikes on Taliban militants, attacks that have become increasingly unpopular among Pakistani people.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, in a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, communicated her “deep sense of rage” for the attack, which she said had set back efforts to improve relations, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said.
Yesterday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen promised a full inquiry into the “tragic unintended incident.”
He termed the deaths of Pakistani personnel “unacceptable and deplorable.”
The Obama administration pledged a full investigation into the attack. Mrs. Clinton, the US government said, committed to reviewing the “circumstances of the incident” and stressed “the importance of the U.S.-Pakistani partnership.”
The White House swung into damage-control mode over the weekend, underscoring concerns about the tenuous nature of relations.
The White House, State Department and Pentagon said they were assessing the implications of the incident for both the immediate war effort in Afghanistan and broader cooperation sought by Washington to end the conflict.
The Pentagon can weather a limited disruption in the flow of military supplies into Afghanistan through Pakistan by routing more supplies through northern entry points.
But a longer-term shutdown of traffic through Pakistan, or a decision by Pakistan to close a critical air-resupply corridor used by the military over southern Pakistan, could have more serious implications, defense officials said.
“All the leaders on the U.S. side are taking this very seriously,” a senior US official said. “We always have alternatives in terms of logistics. It depends on how long it lasts as to whether or not there will be a longer-term impact.”
The State Department is assessing how the incident could affect efforts by Mrs. Clinton to secure Pakistan’s assistance in organizing peace talks with the Taliban to underpin the U.S. withdrawal.
“It’s as serious an incident as we’ve had. Whether it becomes a serious crisis remains to be seen,” a senior official said.
Mrs. Clinton, in an October visit to Islamabad, attempted to forge an agreement with Pakistan to squeeze militants operating in Pakistan’s border areas and to get the country’s help in bringing Taliban leaders to peace talks.
A Western official with knowledge of the discussions said both sides had begun to rebuild confidence ahead of a key international meeting in Bonn, Germany, next month to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.The attack set the clock back on a relationship that had only just begun to recover from a number of incidents, including the secret US raid that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in May and the killing of two Pakistani men in Lahore by a Central Intelligence Agency contractor in January.
“It will be difficult to make much progress in the days to come,” the Western official said.
The incident took place hours after Gen. John R. Allen, the coalition commander in Afghanistan, met Friday with army officers in Pakistan to reduce rising tension on the poorly demarcated border. Gen. Allen said a one-star coalition general will lead an investigation into Saturday’s deaths.
Afghan and US officials say their troops are increasingly facing fire from Pakistan’s side of the border. Pakistan is angry over the increased incidence of cross-border raids by Afghan and NATO forces.
As US military, Pakistani forces and Afghan officials sought to piece together the incident, Afghan, US and Western officials said the attack took place in response to fire from the remote Pakistani posts in the Mohmand tribal region, a lawless border area that abuts Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province.
Two Afghan officials working in the border area where the attack took place said that the joint force was targeting Taliban forces in the area when it received fire from a Pakistan military outpost. That prompted the coalition force to call for an air attack on the Pakistani posts, said an Afghan Border Police official in the area. Pakistani officials were informed of the operation before it took place, he said.
“There was firing coming from the position against Afghan army soldiers who requested support and this is what happened,” said a third Afghan official in Kabul, where Gen. Allen met with top government leaders for a special security meeting to discuss the incident. The Afghan official in Kabul said the government believes that the fire came from the Pakistan base-and not from insurgents operating nearby.
That view was bolstered by one Western official who discussed the attack with military officials in Kabul.
“They were fired on from a Pakistani army base,” the Western official in Kabul said. “It was a defensive action.”
A US official in Kabul said insurgents may have been firing into Afghanistan near the Pakistani border outpost on Saturday morning, which prompted coalition forces to strike back. He pointed to an incident in September 2010, when a NATO helicopter fired on a Pakistan outpost, killing two soldiers.
“It was a situation where insurgent forces butted right up against a Pakistani border post and used that as a firing position. When we fired back, we hit Pakistani security forces. This is a possibility we’re circulating here for Saturday’s incident,” the official said.
Military officials in Kabul said insurgents in Pakistan have also used empty Pakistan border bases to stage attacks, which may have been the working assumption of the coalition forces who called in the airstrike.
U.S. officials said the units believed they were responding to incoming fire from the Pakistan side of the border.
“They believed they were coming under attack from that side of the border,” a senior US official said, although investigators have yet to pinpoint the precise source of fire.
Pakistan’s military disputes this version of events. Military officials say the posts were attacked without warning at 2am, while most of the around 50 soldiers were sleeping, and that NATO helicopters and jets even attacked Pakistani military forces sent in as back-up during the two-hour assault.
Pakistan says it has increased the number of soldiers at border posts like these as part of a campaign in Mohmand this year to wipe out the Taliban in the area.
The campaign, involving 3000 Pakistani soldiers, took back much of Mohmand from the Taliban. But Pakistan’s army says Taliban militants continue to mount attacks on its forces in Mohmand from across the border in Afghanistan.
The posts hit by NATO on Saturday are built on the Salala mountain, part of a chain of low-lying rugged mountains that divide Pakistan from Afghanistan. Many of the tribal people that live in the area, and have set up lashkars, or local armies, to aid the military to attack the Taliban were angered over the NATO attack.
“We have sacrificed our lives in the fight against Taliban who killed hundreds of our tribesmen,” said Malik Mohammad Ali, a tribal elder from Mohmand.
The incident comes as the US has begun to more publicly voice concerns that Pakistan’s military, despite fighting militants in places like Mohmand, is harbouring some factions of the Taliban as a way of influencing events in Afghanistan after most international troops pull out in 2014.
At the least, US officials said, Pakistan is failing to stop some militants firing on US troops from close to Pakistani military posts.
But the US also has attempted to get Pakistan army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to play a larger role in bringing the Taliban into nascent peace talks that have so far failed to bear fruit.
Gen. Kayani’s ability to accede to US demands is greatly limited by events like the one on Saturday, which stoke anti-US fervor in Pakistan, said Talat Masood, a retired general and defence analyst.
“Those who have been more moderate, even those people are asking is it worth having a relationship with the US?” Mr. Masood said. “It will be very difficult for Gen. Kayani to defend the alliance.”
Mr. Masood said he had taped a television chat show on Saturday after the attack on the border posts during which he was the only participant arguing that the US wouldn’t have targeted Pakistani soldiers in Mohmand as a deliberate act of aggression.
Few observers, though, expect a complete breakdown in relations.
Pakistan has shut its border, which will temporarily hurt NATO’s supply chain to Afghanistan, but the country continues to rely on billions of dollars in military and civilian aid from the US Washington, likewise, needs Pakistan to keep up pressure on Taliban militants in the tribal region, and as a supply route.
The White House has frozen portions of US security assistance to Pakistan to increase pressure on Islamabad to take on the militants.
“This is a need-based relationship. It will have its temporary hiccup, probably in the form of the suspension of NATO cargo,” said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.
During the national security meeting yesterday, Afghan leaders also solidified plans to carry out the second phase of plans for coalition forces to cede security control to Afghan forces across the country.
The new plan includes six of the country’s 34 provinces, including Kabul, seven major cities, including Jalalabad, and dozens of districts, including Helmand province’s Marjah, which was the first target last year of US Marines at the forefront of the American military surge meant to cripple the Taliban-led insurgency.
If the transition is a success, it will put Afghan forces in the lead in protecting more than half of the country’s population, officials said.
During the first phase of the transition process carried out earlier this year, Afghan forces assumed control of seven cities and provinces.