Pakistan’s closure of a key border crossing to NATO supply convoys Thursday demonstrates the risks to the Obama administration as it adopts a more aggressive strategy to deal with Afghan insurgents that operate from Pakistani territory.
The shutting of the border to NATO convoys came after Pakistani military officials said two of the alliance’s helicopters crossed into Pakistan’s Kurram tribal region along the Afghan border before dawn Thursday and fired on paramilitary troops at the Mandata Kandaho border patrol post.
When the soldiers fired back at the helicopters, the aircraft retaliated by firing two missiles, destroying the post and killing three soldiers, the Pakistani military said. Within hours, Pakistani authorities ordered a halt to all trucks and oil tankers ferrying supplies to U.S. and NATO forces through the Torkham checkpoint at the Afghan border.
The dispute reflected the rift between the two governments prompted by Pakistan’s unwillingness to move against insurgent strongholds in North Waziristan. U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have adopted a more aggressive stance about attacking across the border when it has clear evidence that insurgents are moving back and forth, senior U.S. military officials in Afghanistan said.
The CIA also has stepped up drone strikes in North Waziristan over the last month.
Both sides have an interest in ensuring that the Pakistani move to close Torkham Gate, a narrow border crossing into Afghanistan through which hundreds of trucks carrying North Atlantic Treaty Organization supplies move every week, does not cause a deeper rift in their relationship.
“We hope the Torkham closure is temporary and are talking with the Pakistanis to resolve the issue,” said Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. “Transit through Pakistan is something we are very appreciative of and shows that we are partners, as we will continue to be.”
But the incident and other recent strikes into Pakistani territory reflect a growing U.S. willingness to take unilateral action, even if it draws Islamabad’s ire. How far the U.S. is willing to take this new effort is unclear, though several officials said they expected the row to ease in coming days.
One military officer, however, said in an interview that it was possible that the U.S. would continue to carry out occasional helicopter attacks across the border into Pakistan, along with a stepped-up campaign of drone strikes, because senior U.S. commanders have decided that Pakistan does not intend to move against Afghan insurgent groups in its territory.
Though Pakistan has long tolerated and even assisted the CIA drone campaign within its borders, the more overt U.S. military moves in recent days have upset the understanding between the two governments that such activity must be kept, if not secret, than at least unacknowledged.
NATO officials acknowledged that aerial firing had taken place early Thursday along the Afghan-Pakistani border, but said their aircraft returned fire only after being shot at by armed individuals on the ground.
Pakistan often publicly lashes out at the U.S. drone attacks even as it privately acquiesces to those strikes. But the Pakistani reaction to the latest incidents has been particularly vehement.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik called for a full investigation into the deaths of the Pakistani troops “to determine whether this was deliberate or by mistake…. We will have to see whether we are allies or enemies.”
U.S. officials noted that Pakistan had not closed another border crossing into Afghanistan to NATO shipments, which they said suggested that Islamabad was motivated primarily by the need to show the Pakistani public, much of which is hostile to what is considers U.S. violations of its sovereignty, that it will respond when such incidents occur. These officials played down the closing of Torkham and said they expected the relationship to quickly return to normal.
“We have multiple routes to be able to resupply our forces in Afghanistan,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
A spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, Capt. Ryan Donald, confirmed that coalition aircraft had engaged what was believed to be a group of insurgents close to the border, in Afghanistan’s Paktia province. The suspected insurgents were trying to fire mortar rounds at a coalition base in Paktia’s Dand Patan district. While firing at the insurgents inside Afghanistan, ISAF aircraft briefly entered Pakistani airspace, according to an ISAF statement.
The aircraft then were targeted with small-arms fire from the Pakistani side of the border. Later, Pakistani military officials informed ISAF that the NATO aircraft had killed the three border troops. Three other soldiers were injured.
The Pakistani military said the location of the checkpoint, about 650 feet from the border, was known to NATO.
U.S. military officials say their rules of engagement allow NATO aircraft to act in self-defense against insurgents who have launched attacks against NATO or Afghan forces from Pakistani territory. The U.S. has said in the past that Pakistan has agreed to those rules, though Pakistani officials deny that such an agreement exists.
Pakistan’s position on unmanned aerial missile strikes against Taliban militants in the country’s tribal areas has been more flexible — Islamabad tacitly allows drone strikes to occur while publicly denouncing them as violations of the country’s sovereignty. This month alone, the U.S. has carried out 22 drone missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, most of them directed at the Afghan Taliban wing known as the Haqqani network in the North Waziristan region.
Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani raised the issue of NATO helicopter incursions during a meeting with CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, saying he was “profoundly concerned” by the incidents. According to a statement from Gilani’s office, the prime minister told Panetta, “Pakistan, being a front-line ally in the war against terror, expects its partners to respect its territorial sovereignty.”
The incidents come at a time when the U.S. has been pressing the Pakistani military to do much more against Afghan Taliban fighters hiding out in tribal areas, particularly members of the Haqqani network, a Pashtun militant group that uses North Waziristan as a base for launching attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
The recent NATO helicopter incursions into Pakistani territory could reflect a new resolve by Western forces to fight back when Taliban militants launch attacks into Afghanistan from the relative safety of their bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The risk in that strategy, say Pakistani security analysts, is the damage it might do to Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate with the West’s efforts to battle Islamic extremists.
“I think Pakistan has to reconsider this whole war on terror, and I think this thinking is already underway,” said Mahmood Shah, a Peshawar, Pakistan-based defense analyst and a retired Pakistani brigadier. “We should consider this to be deliberate policy on the part of the U.S.”
Cloud reported from Washington, Rodriguez from Islamabad and King from Kandahar. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali contributed to this report from Peshawar.