On Sept. 28, reports emerged that US military helicopters may have pursued a group of Haqqani Network fighters in Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan to fire on the fleeing militants, killing five and wounding nine others. ISAF later denied its troops crossed the border, but did carry out two such “hot pursuit” actions into Pakistani airspace the previous two days. On Saturday, US helicopters pursued a large group of Haqqani Network fighters into North Waziristan after they attacked Combat Outpost Narizah, an Afghan base in Khost Province just eight miles from the Pakistani border. More than 30 Haqqani Network fighters were reported killed in the engagement. The second engagement occurred later that day when Taliban fighters in Pakistan fired on US helicopters near the border. The US aircraft returned fire, killing four militants.
While Pakistan’s government has remained largely silent about the record 21 drone strikes inside Pakistan this month, the handful of manned US airstrikes in recent days has provoked a strong – and very public – backlash from Pakistani officials.
After media reports about the Sept. 28 strike surfaced, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry registered a formal protest with NATO over the incursion. Despite a memo uncovered in 2007 which showed that US forces could penetrate up to 10km (6.2mi) into Pakistani territory while engaged with Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters, the Pakistanis vehemently denied that any such agreement exists. Claiming that the UN mandate for NATO forces “terminates at the Afghanistan border,” Pakistani officials insisted that there were “no agreed rules of hot pursuit…such violations are unacceptable,” and if the incursions did not cease Pakistan would be forced to consider “response options.”
On Tuesday, Pakistani security officials went a step further, threatening to stop protecting NATO supply lines into Afghanistan if ISAF aircraft execute one more cross-border attack. Although most analysts agree that the chances of Pakistan carrying out such a threat are highly unlikely, the rhetorical threats highlight just how sensitive Pakistan’s leaders are to domestic accusations that they are failing to protect the country’s sovereignty.
Regardless of the fact that cross-border hot pursuit actions have been a frequent occurrence since at least 2008, Mehmood Shah, a former top security official in Pakistan’s tribal areas, told The Guardian that manned airstrikes inside Pakistan were a “watershed event” that crossed a red line:
“They [NATO] must be warned: the next time you do this, it can lead to war. Our units should be deployed to fire upon them. This border has sanctity. NATO must realise they have a mandate to operate in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan.”
According to the AP, the Pakistani officials may be reacting not so much to the airstrikes themselves (since such cross-border actions are not uncommon), but rather to their public’s perception of them in the media:
Vice Admiral Michael LeFever, the senior U.S. military representative in Pakistan, said the helicopters had not crossed into Pakistani territory, but had fired into it. He said such cross-border incidents were quite common and were usually coordinated with Pakistani military officers at the border.
LeFever suggested that foreign forces in the first incident had coordinated with their Pakistani counterparts but that senior Pakistani military officials got wind of them via media reports before their own officers were able to report them.
The AP also quoted former Pakistani army general and security analyst Talat Masood, who suggested that the Pakistani outrage over the ISAF strikes may be intended to send a message to India – “a signal that it would not accept Indian forces one day using the same justification to launch cross-border attacks on militants sheltering on its eastern flank.”