The killings Tuesday night by US warplanes of
11 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers at or near a checkpoint along the Afghan
border is virtually certain to add to growing tensions between Washington and
Islamabad at a critical moment in relations between both countries.
While the precise circumstances of the incident remain unclear, reports from
Pakistan that the soldiers were fighting alongside Taliban forces against Afghan
Army and US units in the border area will tend to bolster critics of US
policy who argue that the Pakistani military is playing a "double game"
and can no longer be trusted.
While the Pentagon did not comment directly on those reports Wednesday, its
description of what took place suggested that the soldiers – all members of
Pakistan's Frontier Corps – were legitimate targets when they were killed.
"Although it is early, every indication we have is that it was a legitimate
strike in self-defense against forces that had attacked coalition forces,"
said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell Wednesday afternoon. The latter had come
under attack while setting up a checkpoint on the Afghan side of the disputed
border and then called in air strikes against the assailants, officials here
But the Pakistani military released a statement calling the air strikes "unprovoked
and cowardly." It added that "the incident had hit at the very basis
of cooperation and sacrifice with which Pakistani soldiers are supporting the
Coalition in (the) war against terror."
"...(S)uch acts of aggression do not serve the common cause of fighting
terrorism," it said.
Pakistan's prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, also denounced the attack in
parliament, while the US ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, was called
into the Foreign Ministry to receive an official protest.
While expressing regret about the incident and conveying condolences to the
dead soldiers' families, the US embassy did not apologize."The United States
regrets that the actions in Mohmand Agency resulted in casualties among Pakistani
forces, who are our partners in the fight against terrorism," it said in
a statement issued after her visit to the ministry.
The attack, which followed several recent strikes against suspected Taliban
and al-Qaeda leaders on the Pakistani side of the border, came amid growing
US concern that the predominantly Pashtun Federally Administered Tribal Areas
(FATA) and increasingly parts of the North-West Frontier Province in western
Pakistan have become safe havens both for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The US intelligence community and senior military officers have repeatedly
warned over most of the last year that the region has not only become a stronghold
for both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban forces, but also that al-Qaeda has sufficiently
reconstituted itself there to pose, in the words of Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) director Michael Hayden earlier this year, a "clear and present danger"
to "the West, especially the US"
Indeed, on Tuesday, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael
Mullen, told defense reporters here that al-Qaeda leaders based in FATA are
currently planning new terrorist attacks against the United States. He called
on Pakistan's new government to quickly develop a strategy designed to disrupt
and dislodge the group from the area, although he conceded that "it's going
to take longer than most people realize."
Washington is most concerned about the possibility that the new government
will negotiate agreements with Taliban leaders in FATA that will result in the
withdrawal of the Pakistani army from the area in return for the leaders' pledges
to expel foreign fighters and prevent militants from crossing the border into
Similar accords struck by the previous government headed by President Pervez
Musharraf in 2005 and 2006 actually permitted the Taliban to extend its influence
beyond FATA and al-Qaeda to entrench its presence there. US officials also
contend that the infiltration of Taliban forces into Afghanistan from Pakistan
rose sharply during that period.
Since taking office, the civilian government has said it hoped to conclude
new cease-fire agreements that, unlike the military regime's accords, would
be supplemented by a generous aid program designed to spur development in what
has been a traditionally impoverished area and by legal reforms that would better
integrate the region into the rest of Pakistan.
But, while sympathetic to the general strategy, Washington has expressed concern
that any new accords, absent strong enforcement mechanisms, will simply suffer
the same fate as those approved by Musharraf. Last week, Washington was reportedly
informed by the new government that it had suspended cease-fire talks with tribal
chiefs in the region pending specific assurances regarding their future compliance.
At the same time, Washington is concerned that the Pakistani army has its own
priorities that may not be entirely consistent with those of the new government
– or with the US, for that matter.
Indeed, the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, rejected US and NATO
demands that he retrain or reequip troops and deploy more forces to fight the
Taliban in the frontier areas and will instead keep the bulk of the army deployed
along Pakistan's border with India, its traditional enemy, Ahmed Rashid, an
influential Pakistani journalist, wrote in the Washington Post just last
"Recently, (the army) has reached unofficial peace deals with Pakistani
and Afghan Taliban leaders in the tribal areas in which they have promised not
to attack Pakistani forces," according to Rashid, who noted that these
accords do nothing to prevent them from infiltrating their forces into Afghanistan
or consolidating their hold on the Pakistani side of the border.
The army's new policy represents a "strategic shift away from the international
fight against terrorism" and, according to western officials, "have
brought US-Pakistani military relations "to their worst point since Sept.
11, 2001...", Rashid wrote.
Tuesday's incident could well make matters worse yet, and not only because
the Pentagon's version of events suggests that the Frontier Corps, which is
run by the army, was fighting alongside the Taliban.
With anti-US sentiment in Pakistan already running high due to Washington's
long-standing support for Musharraf and its controversial cross-border strikes
against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets, analysts here fear the incident will be
used by the army to distance itself further from US strategy – as suggested
by the army's own statement – and make it more difficult for the new government
to be seen as cooperating with Washington.
"It could really be exploited as an organizing tool to get people back
to thinking the United States is the root cause" of problems in that country,
Rick Barton, a Pakistan specialist at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies here, told Newsweek Wednesday. "It could easily be used as a provocation
for some of the groups that are most anti-American and are outside the government
(Inter Press Service)