The NATO force in Afghanistan denied Tuesday that the American military intends to carry out ground raids inside Pakistan in pursuit of insurgent leaders hiding there.
The sharply worded statement underscored the extreme sensitivities surrounding the subject of militant sanctuaries inside Pakistan, which were identified last week in a White House assessment of the Afghan conflict as a key impediment to subduing the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
In recent years, the U.S. military has launched numerous incursions into Pakistan, though the vast majority have been carried out by unmanned aerial drones. Only a few have involved ground troops. The cross-border raids generally trigger public denunciation by Pakistani officials, though they are widely believed to have tacitly approved at least the airstrikes.
The New York Times reported in Tuesday’s editions that senior U.S. military officials believe they will soon be authorized to send American special operations forces into Pakistan’s tribal areas with the aim of capturing figures from the Taliban and a virulent offshoot organization, the Haqqani network.
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the deputy chief of staff for communications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, said there was “absolutely no truth” to reports of planned ground operations by U.S. forces inside Pakistan. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force has “developed a strong working relationship with the Pakistan military to address shared security issues,” Smith said in a statement.
“This coordination recognizes the sovereignty of Afghanistan and Pakistan to pursue insurgents and terrorists operating in their respective border areas,” he said.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, Abdul Basit, said Pakistan would never agree to allow foreign military operations on its soil.
“Our position is very clear, and the United States is aware of that,” he said. “We do not expect NATO forces to carry out such actions inside Pakistan.”
The unusually vehement denials, however, come amid intense policy debate within the Obama administration over longtime ties between Pakistan’s intelligence services and groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network.
The sanctuaries have become a particularly urgent question; U.S. military officials have said publicly that hard-fought tactical gains in the south of Afghanistan achieved since late summer could be reversed if insurgents are able to rearm and regroup over the winter across the border in Pakistan.
On the Afghan side of the frontier, recent months have seen a dramatic increase in targeted raids by U.S. special operations forces backed by Afghan commandos that NATO says have devastated the insurgents’ midlevel leadership. Such strikes have been concentrated in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, and also in the eastern regions, where the Haqqani network is most active.
Relations between Washington and the Pakistani government, however, have been highly fraught of late. Two months ago, citing NATO helicopter incursions into its territory, Pakistan shut down its main border crossing into Afghanistan for 10 days, in effect cutting the main NATO resupply route.
More recently, suspicion fell on Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, when the identity of the CIA station chief in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, was disclosed, forcing him to leave the country.
Special correspondent Nasir Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.