As if the U.S.–Pakistan relationship needed any more tensions, American military officials believe a NATO helicopter that killed up to 27 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border over the weekend may have been attacked first from within a Pakistani military post. And American officials are now bracing for the possibility of retaliatory strikes on U.S. supply lines.
The incident began in Kunar province in operations against a Salafi militia known as Jamaat Ud-Dawa Wal Quran. As the NATO forces pursued the militants across the porous border with Pakistan, an attack helicopter began to receive fire from bases at Pakistani border posts at Salala, U.S. military sources told The Daily Beast, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
“The NATO helicopter crossed the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in hot pursuit into Mohmand,” one U.S. military official said. “And in the process the helicopter took fire from Pakistani Army positions. We don’t know if this was fire from militants provided sanctuary at a Pakistani base or whether this was from the base itself.”
Officially, both the Pakistani government and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan have been tight-lipped about the incident. Pakistan has closed two border crossings between Pakistan and Afghanistan, effectively shutting down the supply routes between Pakistan and the allied forces in Afghanistan.
According to The New York Times, the Pakistanis also have closed the Shamsi air base in western Pakistan, the hub for the officially still secret CIA drone missions against suspected senior Taliban and al Qaeda operatives.
The incident has aggravated an already strained U.S.-Pakistani relationship. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, called their Pakistani counterparts to try to smooth the tensions. Meanwhile, the White House said President Obama received regular updates on the incident from National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
In many ways, the incident could not have come at a worse time for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, which was already rocky after the disclosure of a memo attributed to President Asif Ali Zardari and the recently departed Pakistani ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, that offered to sack Pakistan’s military leadership and renew efforts to root out the Taliban.
One U.S. military official told The Daily Beast that the scandal in Pakistan, known as “memo-gate,” has played into the worst fears of Pakistan’s military leader, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and his deputies.
“The fact that we did not warn Kayani that Zardari or even his ambassador were plotting against him has played into all of the conspiracy-theory assumptions that run rampant at the highest levels of the Pakistani military,” this official said.
Kayani enjoyed a close personal relationship with Gen. Dempsey’s predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen, until the final months of Mullen’s tenure. But before leaving his post, Mullen publicly accused Kayani’s military of knowingly allowing elements of the Haqqani network to attack U.S. positions in Afghanistan. Dempsey does not have the same personal relationship with the powerful Pakistani general.
“If there was no memo-gate, they would have closed the border for a few days and that would be that,” a U.S. military official said. “It would have been a demonstration, but we all would live. Now there is potential for this to spin out of control.”
The incident also comes as Pakistan’s military is negotiating a new peace deal with the country’s Taliban. If those negotiations succeed, it’s likely the Pakistani military will pull its already inconsistent support for fighting the Taliban in its own country, resuming its posture from 2006 and 2007, when al Qaeda’s leadership was able to rebuild its base in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan.
For now, as the trucks and convoys pile up at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the U.S. military is fearing a new round of attacks on its supply routes from the Haqqani network. “We are worried that the S Directorate of the ISI will be told, ‘OK boys game on.’ And then we will see the Haqqani network and other assorted groups step up their attacks,” the U.S. military official said.