By Chris Brummitt and Kimberly Dozier
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; A12
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Pakistan has told NATO leaders it will stop protecting U.S. and NATO supply lines to Afghanistan if foreign aircraft stage further cross-border attacks against fleeing militants, security officials said Tuesday.
If carried out, such a threat would have major consequences for the war in Afghanistan as well as for Pakistan's relationship with the United States. Analysts said, however, that there is little or no chance of Islamabad carrying though with it.
The threat was therefore seen as mostly aimed at tamping down criticism inside Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment runs high and where conspiracy theories that the U.S. Army is poised to invade the nation from bases in Afghanistan are rampant.
But it was also a clear sign of Pakistani unease at attacks Saturday and Monday by NATO aircraft against militants in the country's northwestern tribal areas and a reminder of the leverage Islamabad has in its complicated alliance with Washington.
Although Pakistan has remained largely silent about U.S. drone strikes in the northwest, Pakistani security officials say they are drawing a line at direct interference by U.S. and NATO manned aircraft. They rejected NATO statements that the alliance's air defense teams were acting to protect an Afghan border post against militants who had attacked it, then fled to Pakistan.
The Pakistani officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Pakistan's Foreign Ministry had conveyed the threat to stop protecting supply convoys to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
If there are any more attacks by U.S. or NATO helicopters, "we will not be able to ensure the safety of their convoys," one of the officials said at a private briefing.
About 80 percent of non-lethal supplies for foreign forces fighting in landlocked Afghanistan cross Pakistani soil after being unloaded at docks in Karachi, a port city in the south.
Pakistani security forces provide protection for the convoys, which are often attacked by militants as they travel north.
Although NATO and the United States have alternative supply routes, the Pakistani ones are the cheapest and most convenient.
In Washington, a Defense Department spokesman, Col. Dave Lapan, said he was unaware of any threats by Islamabad to stop protecting supply lines. But "just on the face of it, if they were to stop providing security to our convoys, that would be problematic," he said. "We would work with the Pakistanis to make sure that wouldn't happen."
- Associated Press