November 26, 2011


[In Washington, American officials were scrambling to assess what had happened and weigh the implications on a relationship that took a sharp turn for the worse after a United States military helicopter raid killed Osama bin Laden near Islamabad in May, and that has deteriorated since then.]

By Salman Masood

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani officials said Saturday that NATO aircraft had killed at least 25 soldiers in strikes against two military posts at the northwestern border with Afghanistan, and the country’s supreme army commander called them unprovoked acts of aggression, in a new flash point between the United States and Pakistan.
Officials in both countries called for investigations, and the Pakistani government said it had closed the main border crossing in the region, at Torkham, blocking NATO supplies from entering Afghanistan. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani cut short a vacation, returning to Islamabad, the capital, and calling a meeting of his cabinet’s defense committee.
In Washington, American officials were scrambling to assess what had happened and weigh the implications on a relationship that took a sharp turn for the worse after a United States military helicopter raid killed Osama bin Laden near Islamabad in May, and that has deteriorated since then.
“It seems quite extraordinary that we’d just nail these posts the way they say we did,” said one senior American official who was in close touch with American and NATO officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan early Saturday. “Whether they were going after people or whether there was some firing from the Afghan side of the border, then the Pakistan side, we just don’t know. It’s real murky right now. Clearly, something went very wrong.”
The American ambassador in Islamabad, Cameron Munter, called an emergency meeting and expressed regret over the Pakistani casualties. And Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, offered condolences to families of the dead and promised an investigation. “This incident has my highest personal attention and my commitment to thoroughly investigate it to determine the facts,” he said in a statement.
The strikes, which Pakistani officials said had involved both helicopters and fighter jets, took place overnight at two military posts in Salala, a village in Pakistan’s Mohmand Agency near the border with Kunar Province in Afghanistan. At least 40 soldiers were deployed at the posts, which according to Pakistani officials were established to repulse cross-border attacks by Afghan militants and the Taliban.
Such attacks have been at the heart of an increasingly hostile relationship between Pakistani and American officials. The Americans accuse Pakistani forces of not doing enough to stop factions of the Taliban and Al Qaeda that are taking shelter in Pakistan from crossing over to attack American forces in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the raid on Bin Laden and repeated American drone strikes against militants in the northwestern tribal regions have enraged Pakistani officials, who consider them breaches in the country’s sovereignty. In a statement, the Pakistani military said its top commander, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, praised troops at the border checkpoints for responding “in self-defense to NATO/ISAF’s aggression with all available weapons,” though there was no confirmation by NATO or American officials of return fire. The statement went on to say General Kayani had “directed that all necessary steps be undertaken for an effective response to this irresponsible act.”
President Asif Ali Zardari also strongly condemned the airstrikes, saying he had lodged strong protests against NATO and the international military force in Afghanistan.
Masood Kausar, the governor of northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, called the attacks “unprovoked and highly condemnable” while talking to AAJ TV, a private news network.
“This incident is highly regrettable and condemnable,” he said. “We think there is no justification. This is not a small incident. It is being taken very seriously.”
Mehmood Shah, a retired brigadier and an analyst in Peshawar, said the matter should be taken to the United Nations Security Council. Mr. Shah said Americans wanted to make Pakistan a scapegoat after facing failure in Afghanistan.
The border crossing closed at Torkham runs through the Khyber Pass and is the main crossing to Afghanistan from Pakistan. NATO has used it to ship supplies into Afghanistan.
After coalition helicopters killed three Pakistani security guards in a series of strikes a little more than year ago, Pakistan responded bytemporarily closing the border crossing at Torkham.
A similar attack occurred in June 2008 and killed 11 soldiers belonging to a paramilitary force called the Frontier Corps, prompting the Pakistani government to temporarily halt shipment of NATO supplies to Afghanistan.
The border episode came a day after General Kayani and General Allen met in Rawalpindi. The two “discussed measures concerning coordination, communication and procedures between the Pakistan Army, ISAF and Afghan Army, aimed at enhancing border control on both sides,” according to a statement by the Pakistani military.
The border strikes will further aggravate the widespread anti-American sentiment in the country, analysts here said.
“Even if the U.S. thinks Pakistan is an unreliable and undependable ally, how does it think such an incident will go down with public opinion in Pakistan?” asked Omar R. Quraishi, the opinion editor at The Express Tribune, an English-language daily in Karachi.
“U.S. is funding civil society initiatives to the tune of millions of dollars, but attacks like this won’t help,” he said in an interview. “The U.S. should take more care.”
Imran Khan, an opposition politician who has recently experienced a surge in his public support, urged the Pakistani government to break its military alliance with the United States.
“The time has come to leave America’s war,” Mr. Khan thundered while speaking at a political rally in Shujaabad in Punjab Province Saturday evening.
“The attack was carried out by those for whom we have destroyed our own country,” he added, alluding to a popular perception here that Pakistan has suffered economically and in terms of human lives because of its partnership with the United States.

Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan; Eric Schmitt from Washington; and Rod Nordland from Kabul, Afghanistan.