By Candace Rondeaux and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 4, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 3 -- Helicopters carried U.S. and Afghan commandos many miles into Pakistan on Wednesday to stage the first U.S. ground attack against a Taliban target inside the country, Pakistani officials said. At least 20 local people died in the raid, according to the officials.
Pakistan filed a formal protest with the U.S. government, which had no comment on what appeared to be a new escalation of U.S. pressure on Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan's mountainous border regions.
As the Taliban insurgency escalates in Afghanistan, U.S. officials have increasingly turned their attention to those havens. Pakistan has committed to securing the borders, but has been beset with rising violence, both in the frontier region and in its cities.
In another example of eroding security, the limousine of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani was ambushed Wednesday in the capital, Islamabad. Two bullets struck the side window of his black Mercedes-Benz as it sped toward an airport. Gillani was not in the vehicle at the time.
U.S. forces based in Afghanistan have periodically conducted air and artillery strikes against insurgents across the border in Pakistani territory, and new hot-pursuit rules provide some room for American troops to maneuver during battle. But the arrival of U.S. helicopters in the village of Musa Nika, deep in undisputed Pakistani territory, would constitute a new tactic.
Mohammed Sadiq, a spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, condemned a "gross violation of Pakistan's territory" and "a grave provocation." In a written statement, he said his office lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
"Such actions are counterproductive and certainly do not help our joint efforts to fight terrorism," Sadiq said. "On the contrary, they undermine the very basis of cooperation and may fuel the fire of hatred and violence that we are trying to extinguish."
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan, at the Central Command in Tampa and at the Pentagon maintained a wall of silence, saying they had no comment on the Pakistani reports. Lou Fintor, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Islamabad, also declined to comment.
Pakistani sources gave varying accounts, including on the number of troops and helicopters involved, and on whether U.S. troops were among those who left the helicopters and conducted a ground operation in the village. There were also differing versions of how far inside Pakistan the helicopters flew, because the border's location is disputed. By one count, the target village lay about 20 miles from the border.
According to Pakistani military sources, the raid began about 3 a.m. Wednesday when two or possibly three U.S. Army helicopters carrying American and Afghan troops landed in Musa Nika village in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan.
The raid was apparently in response to a rocket that fighters fired at a convoy inside Afghanistan, according to one senior Pakistani official. "By the time they got there," the official said, "the guy with the rocket had moved."
According to another Pakistani official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give out information, several of the troops left the helicopters and launched an assault on three houses.
One of the homes belonged to local tribesman Pao Jan Ahmedzai Wazir, according to Anwar Shah, a resident of a neighboring village. Several women and children who were inside Wazir's house and two other homes nearby were killed when U.S. and Afghan troops fired on the buildings, he said. "The situation there is very terrible. People are trying to take out the dead bodies," Shah said.
The reported attack comes at a time of debate over the rules of military operation along the 1,500-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Pakistani military appears to have acceded to U.S. pressure to step up attacks on extremists in its border areas. In the past two months, it has launched major offensives on Taliban and al-Qaeda strongholds in two of the country's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Analysts in Islamabad say that the incursion into South Waziristan could augur a tactical turn aimed at cutting off an insurgency that threatens to engulf large swaths of Pakistan and reverse gains made by U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has never acknowledged a case of hot pursuit into Pakistan. Wednesday's incident "doesn't fit that bill," the senior Pakistani official said. There was no indication U.S. forces had begun a ground pursuit inside Afghanistan that led them into Pakistani territory.
A Pakistani military liaison unit at the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan, Bagram, is under military procedures to be informed of any incursion. Pakistani officials insist there was no such notification.
Last week, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a meeting with the Pakistani army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean after several serious setbacks for Western and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Pakistani officials have released few details about the meeting, which was also attended by Gen. David D. McKiernan, NATO's top commander in Afghanistan.
But a senior Pakistani military official with knowledge of the meeting said that Mullen and Kiyani focused in large part on the threat to international forces in Afghanistan emanating from insurgents operating inside Pakistan's borders. The Pakistani military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the meeting touched on a possible agreement to allow U.S. Special Forces to begin ground operations in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, denied that there was any agreement for U.S. troops to operate on Pakistani territory.
A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan said foreign forces are generally prohibited from mounting cross-border attacks into Pakistan. The spokesman, who gave his name only as Sgt. Yates, said NATO forces occasionally use artillery or missiles to target insurgents who attack foreign troops from Pakistani territory, but the rules of engagement are very precise. "Our area of operations stops at the border. We don't go over the border, period," Yates said.
In Afghanistan, NATO and U.S. military operations have recently come under scrutiny because of an airstrike that Afghan and U.N. officials said killed 90 civilians two weeks ago. On Wednesday, McKiernan said that he concurred with a U.S. military investigation that found that five civilians died in the incident.
McKiernan expressed sorrow at the loss of civilian lives in the strike, which began late on Aug. 21 in the village of Azizabad and continued into the early morning of Aug. 22. He said NATO would work to better coordinate with the Afghan government and the U.N. mission in Afghanistan to respond to incidents involving civilian casualties.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson at the Pentagon and special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.