Pakistan has shut down NATO’s primary lifeline into Afghanistan today after Coalition forces conducted another cross-border strike while engaging in hot pursuit of Haqqani Network fighters.
Pakistani security officials claimed that three members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps were killed after Coalition helicopters crossed the Afghan border into the tribal agency of Kurram, and “shelled the area for about 25 minutes,” Reuters reported. “Three of our soldiers manning a border post were killed and three wounded.”
The International Security Assistance Force confirmed that its helicopters briefly crossed the border and attacked “what it believed was a group of insurgents attempting to fire mortars at a Coalition base in the border area of Dand Patan district, Paktia province.”
“An ISAF air weapons team was called to provide fire support and engaged the suspected insurgents’ firing position, located inside Afghanistan along the border area,” the press release stated. “ISAF aircraft did enter into Pakistani airspace briefly as they engaged this initial target.”
The ISAF helicopters then came under “effective small arms fire from individuals just across the border in Pakistan.”
“Operating in self defense, the ISAF aircraft entered into Pakistani airspace killing several armed individuals,” the press release continued.
ISAF noted that an investigation into the incident was being looked into, and offered an apology to Pakistan even though it hasn’t been confirmed whether Pakistani troops were indeed killed.
“ISAF conveys our sincere condolences to the Pakistani military and the families of those who were killed or injured,” the statement concluded.
Pakistan’s Frontier Corps is known to provide support and cover to Taliban fighters crossing into Afghanistan to engage ISAF and Afghan forces.
Pakistan moved quickly to close the border after today’s incident, and questioned whether NATO is an enemy or an ally.
“We will have to see whether we are allies or enemies,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told The Associated Press.
Today’s cross-border incident is the third since Sept. 25, when ISAF helicopters twice engaged Haqqani Network forces as they fled across the border from Khost into North Waziristan. More than 50 Haqqani Network fighters were reported killed in the strikes.
Pakistan has reacted angrily to the recent cross-border attacks, and yesterday threatened to take military and other action to halt the raids.
“We will not allow anyone in any case to interfere in Pakistan’s territory and if this continues, we will adopt all the set measures including military action,” Malik told reporters. “I assure you we are quite capable of defending our homeland.”
The closure of the NATO supply lines is not likely to last long. Pakistan reaps hundreds of millions of dollars a year in profits for allowing more than 70 percent of ISAF’s supplies to travel through Pakistani territory.
Over the past four years, the Taliban have targeted ISAF’s supply lines along the two main routes that pass through the Khyber Pass in the north and the Chaman border crossing in the south in Baluchistan. The Taliban have been destroying fuel tankers in Baluchistan on a near-daily basis, and routinely hit convoys in Khyber.
Pakistan objects to cross-border raids from Afghanistan
With respect to the recent cross-border raids, ISAF has maintained that it legitimately attacked Taliban forces as part of an existing policy of hot pursuit of enemy fighters.
US forces pursued the Taliban into Pakistan “after following the proper rules of engagement under inherent right of self defense,” Master Sergeant Matthew Summers, an ISAF spokesman, told The Long War Journal on Sept. 26.
But a spokesman at Pakistan’s Foreign Office rejected reports that such an agreement between ISAF and Pakistan exists, and said the incursions are a violation ISAF’s mandate.
“These incidents are a clear violation and breach of the UN mandate under which ISAF operates,” spokesman Abdul Basit said in a statement released by the Foreign Office, according to AFP.
“There are no agreed ‘hot pursuit’ rules,” Basit continued. “Any impression to the contrary is not factually correct. Such violations are unacceptable. In the absence of immediate corrective measures, Pakistan will be constrained to consider response options.”
Background on agreement on cross-border activities between ISAF and Pakistan
Although the Pakistani Foreign Office denied the existence of any agreement that permits ISAF forces to enter Pakistan while in hot pursuit of Taliban fighters, the details of such an agreement have been known for years. In August 2007, The Associated Press released the text of the agreement.
The agreement between ISAF and Pakistan stipulated the following: US forces must be engaged with the Taliban or al Qaeda as they cross into Pakistan and US forces should not penetrate more than six miles into Pakistani territory. Also, US forces may enter Pakistan if they have identified the location of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahri, or Mullah Omar.
The US has pursued Taliban fighters across the border multiple times. Two of the most high-profile incidents occurred in 2008. The first took place in June 2008, when US troops pursued a Taliban force from Kunar into Pakistan’s tribal agency of Mohmand, and killed 11 fighters. The Pakistani government claimed that the US killed Frontier Corps troops, but the US released video of the incident showing the Taliban being targeted as they fled from Kunar into Mohmand. Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps is known to support the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The second incident took place in Khyber in November 2008, when US forces launched rocket attacks and ground strikes into the Tirah Valley, a known haven for al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Lashkar-e-Islam. Seven people were reported killed and three were wounded in the strikes.
The US also launches covert airstrikes using unmanned Predators and Reapers against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The Pakistani government officially protests the covert strikes but quietly approves. Twenty-one such strikes have been launched inside Pakistan this month; all but three have taken place in North Waziristan.