Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NATO Choppers, Pakistani Troops ‘Exchange Fire’

NATO Choppers, Pakistani Troops ‘Exchange Fire’: "

Somewhere, John Kerry is gesturing for an aide to bring him three Advils and a Bushmill’s chaser. Just after the Massachusetts senator cajoled the Pakistanis into returning the remains of the stealth helicopter used in the Osama bin Laden raid, NATO helicopters got into a shooting match with Pakistani troops at a border post, injuring two soldiers. Timing is everything.

Initial reports indicate that the NATO helicopters crossed into North Waziristan. It’s not yet clear if the helicopters were pursuing insurgents, but they encountered a border post manned by 20 soldiers at Datta Khel. A statement from the Pakistani military suggests that the soldiers shot first, prompting an “exchange of fire,” but the actual sequence of events isn’t clear yet.

Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reports that the Pakistanis sent their own helicopters from Mirinshah to Datta Khel, but the “purpose of the Pakistani mobilization was unclear.” The Pakistani Army filed a “strong protest” with NATO, Dawn adds. While the Pakistanis tolerate U.S. drone strikes on its territory, crossings by soldiers are officially a no-no. NATO is still investigating what happened and has yet to issue its account of the incident.

The immediate question is whether NATO troops just got into a shooting match with their ostensible Pakistani allies.

Maybe the Pakistanis were trigger happy after the Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden — and plunged U.S.-Pakistani relations into the toilet. Maybe NATO helicopters misidentified their target. No matter what, it’s a clear indication that NATO isn’t adequately communicating with Pakistani border troops, despite an assurance from the outgoing commander of NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan.

In the wake of the bin Laden raid, Army Maj. Gen. John Campbell told reporters that his forces had a brief communications blackout with their Pakistani counterparts — without whom he can’t close off the border to insurgents. Campbell quickly added that one of his brigade commanders just had a productive exchange with the Pakistanis and everything was A-OK. And, broadly speaking, military ties in the past two months have been “the best we’ve ever seen.”

They’d better be. Pakistan is pissed over the bin Laden raid. Its defiant generals have expelled U.S. military and intelligence personnel. Kerry flew to Pakistan over the weekend to smooth things over and returned home with a prize: a promise to return the tail rotor of the SEALs’ stealth helicopter that malfunctioned at Abbottabad and had to be destroyed. Speculation ran for days that the Pakistanis would give the remains of the copter to China, perhaps the ultimate diplomatic brushoff to Washington.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time NATO troops in Afghanistan have accidentally shot at Pakistani troops. In October, a cross-border raid by U.S. helicopters pursuing insurgents ended up killing two Pakistani soldiers who tried to warn the copters they were friendlies. The Pakistanis responded by briefly shutting down border crossings to logistics convoys resupplying the NATO war. Outraged civilians torched over 100 fuel tankers.

This time, relations are much, much worse. And the U.S. needs the Pakistanis to help negotiate peace with the Taliban, the Obama administration’s political strategy to end the Afghanistan war. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is planning her own trip to Islamabad to repair bilateral ties. Here’s a way to gage the success of that mission: whether any shooting matches follow it.

Photo: U.S. Army


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