Yesterday’s tragic friendly fire incident along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and today’s response, are eerily familiar to any observer of Afghan-Pakistan-United States ties over the past decade.
NATO aircraft “highly likely” – in the words of an alliance spokesperson – killed 24 Pakistani troops and wounded 13 others at two posts located about 1,000 feet apart on a mountain in the Mohmand region of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pakistani militants based in this mountainous northwest frontier use the FATA as a safe haven for conducting cross-border guerrilla and terrorist attacks in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan itself.
In response to the pre-dawn attack, which found most of the garrison still asleep, Pakistani authorities have again blocked vital supply routes for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The government also said it would review all diplomatic, military and intelligence cooperation with ISAF forces.
Pakistani authorities also repeated their demand that the Pentagon leave the Shamsi Air Base in Balochistan Province used to service U.S. drones that launch missiles at al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal region. This time they included a 15-day deadline for the withdrawal.
A spokesman for NATO forces, Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, said Afghan and ISAF troops were operating in the border area of eastern Afghanistan when “a tactical situation” prompted them to call in airstrikes in support that “highly likely” caused Pakistani casualties.
Ironically, the airstrike came one day after a meeting between Gen. John Allen, in charge of ISAF, and Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Islamabad to review border operations. According to a Pakistani military statement, the two discussed “coordination, communication and procedures…aimed at enhancing border control on both sides.”
This is only the latest crisis to befall the border region during the last decade. Relations among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States have been extraordinarily troubled for most of the past ten years. Historical conflicts, different priorities, and personal animosities have combined to weaken the collective ability of the three countries to repress Islamist extremists operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
The United States has pursued several initiatives to reduce tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and to encourage both governments to concentrate their attention on countering the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists operating inside their territories. Despite these efforts, the border region remains a major source of tension in their trilateral relationship.
Most recently, the intensified fighting in Afghanistan, due in part to increase cross-border support from Pakistan, has prompted ISAF to adopt a more aggressive policy along the frontier. Hence, yesterday’s incident was bound to happen someday.
For some time, the U.S. helicopters assigned to ISAF have been engaging in a more aggressive campaign to defend Afghan border outposts. Taliban and Haqqani network guerrillas sally forth from their sanctuaries in Pakistan and attack Afghan army outposts in eastern Afghanistan, then flee back across the border with NATO aircrews in hot pursuit. ISAF commanders had been justifying the border air strikes by citing the failure of the Pakistani Army to occupy and suppress the guerrilla and terrorist bases in the tribal regions, especially in North Waziristan.