November 28, 2011

Afghans Say Pakistan Fired First in NATO Attack


NOVEMBER 27, 2011, 9:28 A.M. ET

As Pakistan's top leaders gathered Sunday to bury 24 Pakistani soldiers killed by NATO airstrike, Afghan officials said Pakistani forces fired first and challenged the Pakistani claim that the helicopter attack was unprovoked.

European Pressphoto Agency
People burn NATO and U.S. flags as they shout slogans against the NATO airstrikes on Pakistani military checkposts in Mohmand tribal agency, during a protest in Multan, Pakistan, on Sunday.

As U.S. military, Pakistani forces and Afghan officials sought to piece together the deadly and destabilizing incident, three Afghan officials said the attack took place in response to fire from the remote Pakistani base.

Two Afghan officials working in the border area where the attack took place said Sunday that the joint force was targeting Taliban forces in the area when it received fire from the Pakistan military outpost.

That prompted the coalition force to call on its military helicopters to fire on the Pakistan base, said a Border Police official in the area. Pakistani officials in the area had been informed of the operation before it took place, he said.

"It was a response to incoming fire," said a third Afghan official in Kabul, where top government leaders held a special security meeting to discuss their response to the incident.

Pakistan's army reacted angrily, calling the "unprovoked" raid on two Pakistani border posts an "irresponsible act." The army said NATO helicopters and fighter aircraft, under the cover of darkness, had bombed the posts in Mohmand tribal region, a lawless border area that which abuts Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province.

Pakistan Protests Raid

View Slideshow

Activists protested in Lahore.

The Obama administration pledged a full investigation into the attack.

In a rare joint statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed "deepest condolences" to Pakistan in what they called "this challenging time."

Mrs. Clinton spoke to her Pakistani counterpart and committed to reviewing the "circumstances of the incident" and stressed "the importance of the US-Pakistani partnership," the statement said.

"Pakistan's sovereignty was attacked early this morning," said Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. "This is our Pakistan and we have to defend it."

In retaliation, Pakistan's security forces began to turn back scores of Pakistani-owned trucks that carry NATO supplies into Afghanistan. Mr Gilani, after chairing an emergency meeting of the country's defense committee, including Gen. Kayani, announced the formal suspension of NATO supply lines through Pakistan.

Pakistan also gave U.S. forces 15 days to vacate Shamsi airbase in southwestern Pakistan. The U.S. had used the base to launch drone strikes against Taliban militants. But with public opposition rising against drones, Pakistan banned the flights in the summer, pushing the CIA to rely on bases in Afghanistan to launch attacks.

Wali Khan Shinwari/European Pressphoto Agency

NATO supply trucks sitting idle after Pakistani officials closed the border crossing into Afghanistan to protest the NATO attack.

Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a Kabul-based spokesman for the military coalition in Afghanistan, said it was "highly likely" that NATO helicopters attacked the Pakistani military during a predawn operation on Saturday along the border.

"It is a very tragic incident and it couldn't come at a worse time," said Gen. Jacobson. "We are all aware of the grave consequences that an incident like this can have."

Gen. Jacobson said Afghan military and coalition forces fighting in the area "where the border is not 100% clear" called for helicopter support during a battle. But he was unable to say what prompted the forces to ask for the air support.

"It is highly likely that this is what caused the casualties on the Pakistani side," he said.

The incident took place hours after Gen. John R. Allen, the coalition commander, met with government officials and army officers in Pakistan to discuss border issues.

Gen. Allen spoke several times with General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the head of the Pakistan army, during the day on Saturday as military leaders tried to figure out what happened, said Gen. Jacobson. Gen. Allen called on a one-star general to lead the investigation as the coalition works to resolve the tense situation, which sparked small street protests Saturday in some Pakistani cities.

Top advisers to President Barack Obama scrambled Saturday to try to contain the damage to relations.

In a series of phone calls with their Pakistani counterparts, senior Obama administration officials and military leaders expressed "our condolences, our desire to work together to determine what took place, and our commitment to the U.S.-Pakistan partnership which advances our shared interests, including fighting terrorism in the region," White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said it was recalling some staff based in the provinces to the capital as a safety precaution following the raid and urged U.S. citizens to be vigilant in their personal security.

A U.S. official in Kabul said insurgents may have been firing into Afghanistan near the Pakistani border outpost Saturday morning, which prompted coalition forces to strike back. He pointed to a similar incident in September 2010, when a NATO helicopter fired on a Pakistan outpost, immediately 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.

Gen. Allen and Gen. Kayani have since spoken about Saturday's attack, he added, but wouldn't go into details of the talks. Both commanders have spoken frequently in the past about improving cross border collaboration; the nature of the talks have gone "very well, very productive." The latest talks between the two were on Friday, held in Islamabad.

Officials in Kabul say they expected Pakistan to retaliate, which they did Saturday by closing the border to trucks providing supplies to the coalition and by putting pressure on the U.S. to close down the Shamsi airbase in southwestern Pakistan. Coalition bases in Afghanistan haven't come under any Pakistani ire so far, Afghan and U.S. officials in Kabul say.

The U.S. official in Kabul added that Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Central Command, will likely appoint a commanding officer to "find the facts" on Saturday's incident.

An Afghan official said his government received a "letter of strong protest" from the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul on Saturday night.

The U.S. claims Pakistan, while waging a three-year-old war against militants in the tribal regions, has continued to shelter some factions of the Taliban as a way to maintain influence inside Afghanistan after most international troops leave in 2014. U.S. military officials say NATO troops have repeatedly come under attack from Taliban forces based over the border and have urged Pakistan to do more about militants in its tribal regions.

But the Obama administration is also nudging Pakistan to use its influence over the Taliban, which Pakistan's military helped create in the 1990s, to bring them to the negotiating table to end the 10-year war in Afghanistan. Mrs. Clinton brought this dual message to Pakistan during a visit to Islamabad, the capital, in October, asking for stepped-up military action on Pakistan's side of the border but promising to keep Pakistan fully abreast of developments in Afghanistan, including nascent peace talks.

Gen. Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, is faced with growing anti-U.S. sentiment, deepened by incidents like the one on Saturday, and has limited room to accede to any U.S. demands at the moment, said Talat Masood, a retired general and defense analyst.

"Those who have been more moderate, even those people are asking is it worth having a relationship with the U.S.," 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 Saturday after the attack on the border posts during which he was the only participant arguing the U.S. wouldn't have targeted Pakistani soldiers in Mohmand as a deliberate act of aggression.

Western diplomats in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, said Saturday the raid is likely to hurt efforts to get Pakistan to play a significant role in forging peace talks, which are expected to take center stage at an international conference on Afghanistan to be held in Bonn, Germany, next month.

U.S. and Afghan officials say Pakistan continues to hold sway over the Taliban group controlled by Mullah Mohammed Omar, believed to be based in the western Pakistani city of Quetta, and the Haqqani faction, which shelters in North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region on the Afghan border. Pakistan denies this and blames the U.S.'s war in Afghanistan for sparking a war on its side of the border in which more than 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have died.

Few observers, though, expect a complete breakdown in relations. Pakistan has shut its border, which will temporarily hurting NATO's supply chain, but the country will continue to rely on billions of dollars in military and civilian aid from the U.S. Washington, likewise, needs Pakistan to keep up pressure on Taliban militants in the tribal region, and as a supply route, as it tries to work out an exit strategy from Afghanistan.

"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.

In September 2010, a NATO helicopter attack on a Pakistani border post in the tribal regions killed two soldiers. Pakistan closed traffic for NATO convoys for a few days but later reopened the route. The U.S., wary of its part-time ally, begun moving more supplies for Afghanistan through Central Asia. The Pakistan land route, from the port city of Karachi across country to two major borders with Afghanistan, still accounts for roughly half of NATO supplies coming in to Afghanistan.

Since that incident, which blew over, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has deteriorated. Pakistan' army was embarrassed and angered by the covert raid by U.S. Navy SEALs in May that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani army garrison town. That came after a Central Intelligence Agency contractor shot dead two armed men in Lahore in January and was briefly jailed.

Just last week, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. was forced to resign amid allegations he had sought Washington's help to reduce the power of Pakistan's army, which plays a large role in domestic politics.

Pakistan's army, in response to growing anti-U.S. feeling, has began to more forcibly challenge the U.S. in public, including attacking Washington's policy of stepped-up unmanned drone strikes against Taliban targets in the tribal regions.

—Owais Tohid, Habib Khan Totakhil and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

if pakistan is wrong... will US extract an... apology from pakistan... let's see whether US has the courage... and pride... left in it...