By Candace Rondeaux and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 12, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 11 -- U.S.-led forces dropped more than a dozen bombs in and near Pakistan's tribal regions Wednesday in an attack that dramatically exacerbated tensions along the Afghan border and, according to authorities here, killed 11 Pakistani paramilitary troops.
Many details of the incident remained unclear late Wednesday. A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan said airstrikes were launched after an incursion by "anti-Afghan forces," and Pentagon officials said the strikes had been coordinated with Pakistan.
The Pakistani military, however, said the attack was "completely unprovoked and cowardly" and "hit at the very basis of cooperation" in the U.S.-Pakistani battle against terrorism. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said Pakistan "vehemently condemned" the airstrikes.
While the Pentagon defended the strikes as justified, a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan said the United States "regrets that actions . . . resulted in the reported casualties among Pakistani forces, who are our partners in the fight against terrorism. We express our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives."
The incident comes at a sensitive time. The United States is seeking to forge closer cooperation with the Pakistani military on curbing insurgent activity, and Pakistan's new government is negotiating with tribal groups, some of which are allied with the Taliban. Taliban fighters have taken refuge in Pakistan's tribal areas, and some Western officials have alleged that members of the country's intelligence services and military are aiding the fighters.
A Taliban spokesman said the group's fighters had fought "side by side" with Pakistani paramilitary soldiers during Wednesday's incursion into Afghanistan. The spokesman, Maulvi Omar, also said at least nine Taliban fighters and one child were killed.
A Western military official in Pakistan familiar with operations in the tribal region said that officials have become increasingly concerned that Pakistan's Frontier Corps, the paramilitary forces charged with monitoring activities along the border, is not properly trained.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said in an interview a day before the strike occurred that some Western officials had begun to harbor doubts about the paramilitary group's ability to handle the challenges posed by the Taliban. The Frontier Corps' members are recruited from the tribal areas and are known in some instances to have fired on U.S. troops.
"The Frontier Corps was sent in to do a job they were not trained to do," the military official said.
This month, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited with several top Pakistani officials in Islamabad, including the newly appointed head of Pakistan's army, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. While Mullen publicly lauded the Pakistani military's efforts to control the growing insurgency, he privately expressed concern with the Pakistani government's recent moves to negotiate with militants, according to a Western diplomat who was briefed on the meetings.
On Wednesday, the clash erupted when U.S.-supported Afghan troops tried to establish a checkpoint near the Sheikh Baba area in the Mohmand tribal region, along the disputed knife's-edge border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to local villagers and Pakistani military officials. Taliban troops then opened fire on the Afghans.
According to the U.S. military, two Air Force F-15E jets and a B-1B Lancer bomber then dropped the bombs, which included both precision-guided and unguided munitions and which weighed between 500 and 2,000 pounds. The bombs were used "to destroy anti-coalition members in the open and in buildings in the vicinity of Asadabad," Afghanistan, according to a statement released by the U.S. military's Combined Air and Space Operations Center for Southwest Asia.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell defended the U.S. strikes as justified because, he said, U.S. troops in Afghanistan were under fire from forces in Pakistan.
"Every indication we have at this point is that the actions that were taken by U.S. forces were . . . legitimate, in that they were in self-defense," he said. "Our forces . . . came under fire from forces that had come over from the Pakistani side into Afghan territory, and then retreated into Pakistani territory and continued to fire upon our forces, even though we did not pursue them into Pakistan," he said.
Morrell said he did not know who, if anyone, died in the U.S. strikes. "We are going to work to find out who was killed in this attack, and we will be doing so with the Pakistani government," he said.
U.S. officials acknowledged that communications along the border are often difficult, despite efforts by all sides to improve the situation.
"This a complex attack involving . . . an airstrike and artillery and a number of forces . . . along a border that has traditionally been a problem and is often the cause of some confusion as to who the forces are that are involved," Morrell said.
Another U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, put it more bluntly: "This sounds like a mess-up of communication all the way around."
Tyson reported from Washington.