The U.S. military began a high-level investigation to help salvage relations with Pakistan after an air strike by the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan killed 24 Pakistani troops at the border.
The U.S. military’s highest commander for the region, Marine General James Mattis, yesterday named Air Force Special Operations Command Brigadier General Stephen Clark to lead the investigation. Marine General John Allen, the top U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander in Afghanistan, had requested that Central Command take charge of the review, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said yesterday.
“You can expect the investigation to look at the full range of factors that contributed to this tragedy,” Little told reporters at the Pentagon. “It will be broad, expansive and thorough.”
The investigation and repeated U.S. condolences were aimed at avoiding a prolonged rift in a relationship that was already in a rebuilding stage after a tumultuous year. Ties had been strained by the killing of two Pakistanis by a Central Intelligence Agency contractor, the raid near Islamabad that killed Osama bin Laden, and U.S. accusations that Pakistan’s army aids groups attacking Americans in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said the U.S. takes the latest border incident “very seriously,” and will work to maintain cooperation with Pakistan. The two countries have “shared goals” when it comes to combating terrorism, he said.
Pakistani authorities responded to the Nov. 25 air strike with expressions of outrage and by closing border crossings into Afghanistan that the coalition relies on to ferry supplies from a port to the land-locked war zone. Supply trucks for American-led forces in Afghanistan backed up on Pakistani roads near the border after the closure, leaving drivers and their cargo vulnerable to attack by Islamic guerrillas.
U.S. military officials have said their forces can sustain operations in Afghanistan for weeks in case of such a shutdown.
“There are other supply routes,” Little said. “The war effort continues.”
U.S. General William Fraser told Congress in July the Pakistan route was carrying 35 percent of “non-lethal” supplies for American-led forces in Afghanistan. The military has worked to shift to a northern route through Russia and Central Asia, Fraser said.
Drone Base Expulsion
Pakistan also ordered U.S. officials to leave an airbase in the southwest that has served as a launching point for Predator unmanned aircraft used against the Taliban and its allied guerrillas on both sides of the border.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a weekend phone call that the Nov. 25 attack by helicopter gunships triggered a “deep sense of rage” in the nuclear-armed nation, according to a foreign ministry statement.
Mattis’s instructions to Clark for the investigation said he should include representatives of NATO, the broader coalition fighting in Afghanistan, Afghan forces and the Pakistani government.
“Ensure openness and candor with them, respond to their questions they need to be addressed in the investigation and coordinate through them to receive evidence they offer,” Mattis told Clark in the letter. “Their participation will facilitate the investigative process to determine what happened and how we preclude it from happening again.”
Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, predicted “this crisis will get papered over” and “the U.S. will face even less prospect that Pakistan will really crackdown on insurgent groups in the border area.”
The U.S. and Pakistan conducted a joint investigation last year after a similar border incident involving several Pakistani deaths. In that case, the resolution prompted a NATO apology and opened border crossings that had been shut in the aftermath of the incident.
The Pakistan-Afghanistan border passes through rugged mountains and desert terrain and is unmarked over most of its more than 2,600-kilometer (1,600-mile) length. The two countries dispute the border’s location in many areas.
U.S. military and intelligence officials have cited a pattern of similar incidents at and around Pakistani frontier outposts.
In June 2008, U.S. aircraft bombed a remote Pakistani Frontier Corps border checkpoint and killed at least 11 soldiers.
At the time, U.S. officials said the bombing occurred after Taliban fighters “ambushed” American troops 1,000 yards inside Afghanistan, then fled into Pakistan through the border crossing. Pakistani officials called the bombing “completely unprovoked and cowardly.”
While the facts of the current case remain murky, “We have patterns of behavior that suggest that these bases sometimes provide cover for militants, or that militants use them as cover,” said Dr. Tim Hoyt, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who has studied Pakistan for 25 years.
The Pakistani military’s ties to some Afghan militant groups date back to their fight, alongside the U.S., against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“There is also a pattern of the Pakistanis supporting militant groups against their neighbors,” Hoyt said in a telephone interview.
Arizona Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, referred to Pakistani support for the militant Haqqani network and other Afghan insurgents in expressing condolences yesterday for the latest incident.
“I fully support NATO’s commitment to investigate this tragedy thoroughly and immediately,” McCain said in a statement. “It is important to note that certain facts in Pakistan continue to complicate significantly the ability of coalition and Afghan forces to succeed in Afghanistan.”
The latest rift between the two nations comes as Afghanistan and its supporters prepare for a conference in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 4 and 5 to mark the 10th anniversary of a similar gathering that helped form an Afghan government after the U.S. ousting of the Taliban in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
The U.S. is counting on Pakistan to help broker a peace deal in Afghanistan, drawing on its influence on Taliban militants whose leaders have their headquarters on Pakistani territory. Pakistan may boycott the conference because of the NATO strike.
“It’s very much in Pakistan’s interest to attend the Bonn conference because the focus of that is all about trying to build a more stable, peaceful Afghanistan,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington yesterday.
The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is “critical to the region’s stability,” Toner said.