By Abubakar Siddique
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
An exchange of fire between U.S. and Pakistani forces along the Afghan border has highlighted growing tensions between the two allies over how to fight extremists now reported to be entrenched in Pakistan’s western border regions along Afghanistan.
According to the U.S. military, two American reconnaissance helicopters in Afghanistan’s Khost Province, which were providing cover for patrols in pursuit of militants, came under small arms fire from a Pakistani border post on September 25.
A statement by the Pakistani military contradicted this claim, however.
The statement said the two helicopters had crossed into Pakistan and it was only after they passed over a Pakistani border post that Pakistani soldiers fired warnings shots at them.
According to U.S. Central Command spokesman, Rear Admiral Greg Smith, U.S. ground forces then fired off their own warning shots. The exchange lasted five minutes.
Both sides later said they were working together to resolve the issue.
In New York, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari tried to downplay the incident and said that only “flares” were fired to warn the approaching helicopters that they were near the border.
Later, while addressing the UN General Assembly, Zardari reiterated his government’s resolve to take on the terrorists. But he warned against crossborder attacks in carefully chosen words.
“Just as we will not let Pakistani’s territory to be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbors, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends,” he said. “Attacks within Pakistan that violate our sovereignty actually serve to empower the forces against which we fight together.”
Experts say this latest border incident indicates growing tensions between the United States and Pakistan, in particular its powerful military, over how to combat Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who have established safe havens in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan.
Analysts say that the recent stepped up crossborder attacks by the U.S. military indicate the mounting frustration with the militants based in Pakistan, who are seen as responsible for the recent spike in violence inside Afghanistan.
Pakistani leaders acknowledge the need to end extremist sanctuaries but view the U.S. raids as a violation of their country’s sovereignty.
Former Brigadier General Mehmood Shah, who used to head security affairs in Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas, told RFE/RL that although Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States are allies in the war on terrorism, they are reluctant to trust each other, which helps the extremists to exploit such divisions.
‘Turning Into Battleground’
Shah said there is deep anxiety that U.S. military operations along the border with Afghanistan could have a destabilizing effect on Pakistan. And he added that in his own view, the Pakistani authorities should make it clear to Washington that its forces will not be allowed to cross the border.
“All of Pakistan, not only our tribal areas, are turning into a battleground,” Shah said. “Pakistan, with a strong resolve and robust planning…should start [its own] war against terrorism. It should clearly warn the U.S. and Afghanistan that it will go to war with them if they cross onto its soil and engage in conspiracies against Pakistan. It should make it clear to everybody the we will go to war against them [if needed] to save Pakistan.”
Others in Pakistan don’t take such a stark view. They hold past Pakistan’s past rulers — and the military — at least partly responsible for encouraging the growth of militants.
But everyone shares a concern about instability spreading further.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani military says it has killed up to 1,000 militants including top foreign fighters in a monthlong operation in the country’s restive Bajaur tribal region. Analysts see the battle as a milestone in determining the future course of the ongoing campaign to eliminate Taliban and Al-Qaeda sanctuaries from the border region.