Pakistan protests cross-border air attacks
NATO defends copter strikes
KABUL, Afghanistan — Pakistan vehemently protested NATO helicopter strikes that killed more than 70 militants over the past three days, saying yesterday that UN rules do not allow the choppers to cross into its air space even in hot pursuit of insurgents.
NATO said it launched the strikes in self-defense after militants attacked a small security post in Afghanistan near the border.
Although unmanned CIA drones frequently attack insurgents hiding on the Pakistani side where coalition forces are banned from fighting, strikes by manned NATO helicopters are uncommon there.
Pakistan’s protest, which plays to anti-American sentiment in that country, contrasts with its muted criticism of a sharp rise in suspected drone attacks in North Waziristan, a rugged, mountainous tribal area of Pakistan largely controlled by militants who stage attacks on coalition troops across the border.
The New York Times reported in today’s editions that the CIA, as part of its covert war in the region, launched 20 attacks with armed drone aircraft in September, the most ever during a single month, and more than twice the number in a typical month. This expanded air campaign comes as top officials are racing to stem the rise of US casualties before the Obama administration’s comprehensive review of its Afghanistan strategy, set for December.
The dispute over the recent helicopter strikes fuels unease between the two countries. The Pakistani military has fought Pakistani Taliban fighters, but it has resisted pressure to move against the Al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network. The Haqqanis, who control vast stretches of territory in North Waziristan and the bordering Afghan province of Khost, carry out attacks in Afghanistan, but not in Pakistan.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said the US followed the appropriate protocol in the situation.
“Our forces have the right of self-defense,’’ Lapan said. “They were being attacked, and they responded.’’
US officials say there is an agreement to notify Pakistani officials of cross-border incidents to allow the coalition to defend itself. In this instance, coalition forces could not reach the Pakistani military before they defended the Afghan forces under attack, a NATO official said.
Pakistan denied that such an understanding exists with the military coalition, or International Security Assistance Force.
NATO confirmed that it launched two airstrikes on Saturday and a third attack yesterday, all in tribal regions of Pakistan located opposite an increasingly dangerous area in eastern Afghanistan.
While Pakistani air space was breached during the first strike, copters involved in the second and third strikes apparently fired from Afghan air space and hit targets on the Pakistan side of the border.
The first strike occurred after insurgents, firing from Pakistan, attacked an Afghan security force at outpost Narizah in Khost Province. Abdul Hakim Ishaqzie, the provincial police chief in Khost, said police at checkpoints at the border came under attack, engaged the militants in a gun battle, then called for air support.
The top commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, described the clash in Khost as an example of NATO forces being out in front of the enemy.
Speaking to reporters after a tour of the main US detention center in Afghanistan near Bagram Air Field, Petraeus said the airstrike killed nearly 60 members of the Haqqani faction, which frequently attacks coalition troops.
“ISAF forces responded and caught those out in the open there,’’ Petraeus said, adding that NATO recently increased its force in Khost.
The second strike, which killed four insurgents, occurred when helicopters returned to the border area and were attacked by insurgents, again firing from across the border in Pakistan.
The NATO official confirmed that a third strike was carried out, killing 10 insurgents who were firing at coalition forces. Two NATO helicopters fired on the village of Mata Sanger in the Kurram tribal area, across the border from the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Nangarhar.
Also yesterday, Petraeus said top Taliban leaders have made overtures to reconcile with the Afghan government.
President Hamid Karzai has long said that he will talk to insurgents if they renounce violence, sever ties to terrorists, and embrace the constitution. Publicly, the Taliban have said they will not negotiate until foreign troops leave Afghanistan, yet there are indications that backdoor discussions have occurred.