REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Allegations of a NATO helicopter attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border early Saturday likely will deal a serious blow to already tense relations between Washington and Islamabad at a time when the U.S. needs Pakistan’s cooperation in engineering a peaceful resolution to the 10-year war in Afghanistan.
If confirmed, the attack would mark the deadliest ever involving a NATO assault that resulted in Pakistani security forces casualties.
Local officials said the alleged incursion occurred about 2 a.m. Saturday at two Pakistani army checkposts in Salala, a border village in the restive tribal region of Mohmand. Two of the dead were a captain and a major, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the incident. At least 13 soldiers were injured, according to a statement released by the Pakistani military.
U.S. Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the incident was being investigated. “This incident has my highest personal attention and my commitment to thoroughly investigate it to determine the facts,” Allen said in a prepared statement. He also extended his condolences “to the families and loved ones of any members of Pakistani security forces who may have been killed or injured.”
The rugged Pakistan-Afghanistan border is extremely porous and difficult to police, enabling Afghan Taliban insurgents enjoying sanctuary in Pakistan to launch cross-border attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, and for Pakistani Taliban militants on the Afghan side of the border to attack Pakistani troops and checkpoints. In past incidents involving NATO aircraft fire on Pakistani security forces, NATO officials have said their troops were either pursuing Taliban militants or thought they were shooting at insurgents.
Pakistani authorities said the assault was unprovoked and denounced it as a gross violation of their country’s sovereignty. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani condemned the attack as “a blatant and unacceptable act.” The military said it had lodged a protest with NATO and coalition forces in Afghanistan, demanding that “strong and urgent action be taken [against] those responsible for this aggression.”
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the attack “a serious transgression of oft-conveyed red lines and could have serious repercussions” for Pakistan’s cooperation with U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Islamabad also retaliated as it has in the past when NATO aircraft incursions into Pakistani territory have resulted in security forces’ casualties -- by shutting down a border crossing used by convoys delivering supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials at the Torkham checkpoint at the Khyber Pass said Saturday that they had suspended all movement of NATO tankers and supply trucks heading into Afghanistan.
A similar incident occurred more than a year ago, when NATO helicopters crossed over into Pakistan’s Kurram tribal region along the Afghan border and fired on paramilitary troops at a border patrol checkpoint, killing two Pakistani soldiers. The U.S. government and NATO formally apologized for the deaths of the soldiers, saying the helicopter crews mistook the men for insurgents it had been pursuing across the Afghan-Pakistani border.
At the time, Pakistan responded to the incident 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 in the attacks.
Pakistan plays a crucial role in keeping supply lines open for U.S. and Western troops battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, which also gives Islamabad leverage when angered by Washington. Roughly 40% of NATO’s non-lethal supplies bound for Afghanistan move by truck from the Pakistani port city of Karachi to either the northwest border crossing at Torkham or the southern crossing at Chaman.
In recent years, U.S and NATO forces have established northern routes through former Soviet republics in Central Asia as alternate supply lines. That has allowed NATO to reduce its reliance on Pakistan as a transit nation. At one point, 80% of NATO’s non-lethal supplies moved through Pakistan.
The Mohmand incident could have deeper fallout if it jeopardizes Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate with Washington’s push for a negotiated end to the 10-year war in neighboring Afghanistan. Though the U.S. no longer expects Pakistan to militarily uproot from Pakistani territory the deadly Afghan Taliban affiliate known as the Haqqani network, it still wants Islamabad to help convince Haqqani leaders to participate in peace talks. Washington also wants Pakistan to pressure the Haqqani group by cutting off its funding channels and providing intelligence to the U.S. on the group’s movement and activities.
“The confidence that was already lacking in the relationship will further take a deep, downward trend,” said security analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. “The public will react very adversely to this incident. The military cannot possibly continue to cooperate unless they know exactly what has happened. They need to know the American version of this as soon as possible.”
Experts believe the Pakistani military has yet to act against Haqqani militants because the country’s intelligence community maintains lasting ties with the insurgent group, and because it sees the group as an important asset in a post-U.S. Afghanistan to prevent nuclear archrival India from extending its influence to Kabul. Pakistan’s military and intelligence chiefs have always regarded India, and not Islamic extremists, as their main adversary.
Other than shutting down the Torkham border crossing, there was no further sign of how Islamabad would react to the attack in Mohmand. Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani cut short a three-day visit to the southern city of Multan Saturday and planned to return to the capital Saturday evening to discuss the attack with top civilian and military leaders.
While Pakistan tacitly permits the U.S. to carry out unmanned drone missile strikes against militant compounds and vehicles in the country’s tribal areas, it has adamantly stressed it would not allow the U.S. to conduct air strikes or ground incursions on its territory.
U.S. military officials, however, have stated their rules of engagement allow NATO aircraft to act out in self-defense against insurgents that have launched attacks against NATO or Afghan forces from Pakistani territory. The U.S. has said in the past that Pakistan has abided by those rules, though Pakistani officials say no such accord exists.
If the incident in Mohmand is confirmed, it would eclipse the death toll in a U.S. air strike on Pakistani territory in June 2008, when 11 members of a Pakistani paramilitary force that patrols the tribal areas were killed. At the time, the U.S. said it had been acting in self-defense after its troops had come under attack from Taliban militants.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, and special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
Photo: Cargo trucks, some carrying supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, are halted along the Pakistan border after it was closed Saturday in response to a NATO helicopter attack in northwest Pakistan. Credit: Shahid Shinwari