Recent weeks have brought into sharp focus just how delicate the balancing act is for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan as it battles extremists alongside a sometimes reluctant ally.
In recent months, Western intelligence agencies intercepted information suggesting that terrorists were preparing to conduct mass murder along the lines of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, in which 166 people were killed in a series of coordinated commando assaults. Indeed, the threat became so serious that the US State Department issued a warning to Americans travelling to Europe to be particularly vigilant.
Concerned about evidence suggesting the likely attackers were being trained in terrorist safe havens in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, NATO stepped up its drone attacks on Pakistani territory and launched air strikes using helicopter gunships operating from Afghanistan. They reportedly killed more than one hundred presumed members of the extremist Haqqani group (which is suspected of having close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence service), including some radicalized Europeans.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But there was a complication. During a helicopter attack on one group of insurgents that was fleeing across the border, two of the alliance's helicopters allegedly flew into Pakistani airspace and, in firing surface-to-air missiles, killed three members of the Pakistani Frontier Corps and wounded three others manning the Mandata Kandaho border post.
Was this a violation of Pakistan’s airspace? The difficulty for combatants is that the Afghan-Pakistan border, with its disputed boundary and lack of distinctive natural geography, isn’t clearly demarcated, and some sources also suggest the helicopters were anyway fired upon first from the border post.
According to the Pentagon, the helicopter crew in question was investigating reports that insurgents had erected a new firing position along the border, which ISAF considers a potential threat to its operations in the region. With this in mind, US Defence Department Spokesman Geoff Morrell argued that US troops retain the right to self-defence wherever they are deployed.
NATO, for its part, has invited Pakistani military representatives to participate in a joint investigation, and offered them access to the video tapes taken by the helicopter’s onboard cameras to demonstrate the accuracy of its account.
But even before these professed preventive strikes, NATO officials had been quietly justifying such attacks by citing the failure of the Pakistani Army to occupy and suppress guerrilla and terrorist bases in the tribal regions, especially in North Waziristan. NATO commanders say they’ve had little choice but to step up their own cross-border aerial attacks to deny the insurgents a sanctuary.