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 said.
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 Afghanistan.
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 week.
“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 as well.”