A border outpost located 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the Afghan border in the Mohmand agency of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) was struck, reportedly by U.S. attack helicopters, in the early morning hours of Nov. 26. Twenty-four Pakistani troops, including two mid-level officers, were reported as killed, with 14 more wounded. The post is of significant size, has existed for a good amount of time, and Pakistani sources have said the United States is well aware of its existence. Some reports suggest the attack involved both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft and may have included strikes on multiple positions. This appears to be one of the most deadly cross-border attacks on a Pakistani military position in the history of the U.S.-Afghan war — and perhaps the deadliest.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has all but admitted that close air support killed Pakistani forces. Meanwhile, Pakistani officials moved fast today to back up statements that they would be confrontational in their response to the incident. After summoning U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, Islamabad announced the permanent closure of supply lines carrying NATO supplies to Afghanistan. Islamabad also told Washington to leave Pakistan’s Shamsi air base, which the United States has used to launch covert unmanned aerial vehicle strikes. Pakistan said it will review all its diplomatic, military and intelligence activities with Washington and NATO and insists the incident will be investigated at the highest possible level.
The Afghan-Pakistani border in the FATA, perennially porous, has been a source of significant tension since the U.S.-Afghan war began, featuring regular skirmishes, cross-border exchanges of gunfire and even strikes by U.S. attack helicopters on outposts. These sometimes result from genuine miscommunications and mistakes, in an area where militants regularly cross in both directions and many border outposts amount to little more than prepared fighting positions.
At times, Pakistani forces, including the paramilitary Frontier Corps troops, and U.S. forces have found themselves in full-blown firefights involving close air support. But by all indications, the main military post attacked Nov. 26 was of significant size, and Pakistani sources suggest that the post’s location was shared with and known by the United States. These same sources are speaking of the attack as completely unprovoked and have said NATO officials have previously visited the facility to meet with their Pakistani counterparts.
While a firefight in the middle of the night leaves plenty of room for confusion and misunderstanding, this incident stands out for the number of deaths it caused and comes as tensions between Washington and Islamabad are already at a high point. Indeed, given the sensitivity of the current climate and the timing, the scale of the incident is remarkable. Elements both within the Pakistani government and in the FATA are likely to benefit from a significantly wider rift between the United States and Pakistan, so the intentional staging of a provocation is not only possible but seems highly likely.
Only a day before, on Nov. 25, Gen. John Allen, the commander of ISAF and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, was in Rawalpindi at the Pakistani military’s General Headquarters meeting with Pakistan’s top officer, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, to discuss strengthening security on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Allen appears to have been in Pakistan when the border skirmish took place. There were almost certainly attempts during Allen's visit to smooth tensions related to a scandal involving a reported memo between Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. In the memo, Zardari reportedly asked for help managing the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, who supposedly handled and delivered the memo, has already been recalled and replaced over the scandal. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar were set to meet on the sidelines of the upcoming Bonn Conference on Afghanistan to further smooth relations.
Pakistan's Need for a Strong Response
The border incident comes at a time of enormous tension not only between Washington and Islamabad, but within the Pakistani government and between the Pakistani government and its populace — all dynamics already strained from the U.S. special operations forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May.
From Pakistan’s perspective, a powerful response is necessary to push back against the United States and deter further aggression, but also to demonstrate, both to factions within the Pakistani government and to its domestic populace at large, that Islamabad will not tolerate such attacks. No matter how the incident occurred or what the Pakistani investigation ultimately reveals, Islamabad will respond aggressively.
A full closure of the border crossings at Chaman and Torkham (near the Khyber Pass) was implemented in the hours previous to Islamabad's announcement of a permanent closure of supply lines. ISAF has long dealt with such closures, and even a closure lasting more than a week should not impact operations on the ground, especially now that stockpiles have been established and the alternative Northern Distribution Network has been significantly expanded. But Washington is not yet completely free of its reliance on supplies moved through Pakistan and so will need to find a way to resume the flow of supplies from the port of Karachi and of fuel from Pakistani refineries, both of which move through the crossings at Chaman and Torkham.
Pakistan seems to be more serious than on past occasions when it has threatened to alter its cooperation with Washington. Pakistan’s announced review of all its diplomatic, military and intelligence activities with the United States and NATO as well as Islamabad's demand that the United States vacate Shamsi air base within 15 days are in keeping with Pakistan’s practice of applying pressure on the United States. These measures, however, now follow an incident that marks a new level of tension in U.S.-Pakistani relations. How big the rift now is between Washington and Islamabad, and to what extent it can be patched, is not yet known, but the incident appears unprecedented, and Pakistan has already demonstrated a willingness to issue a quick and serious response.