Afghan-Pakistan Border Incidents: The Underlying Problem


11/27/2011 By Richard Weitz

Pakistan and the United States have experienced their most serious incident along the Afghan-Pak border. According to Pakistani sources, confirmed by NATO, U.S. helicopters acting as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan attacked a military checkpoint in northwest Pakistan on Saturday, killing up to 28 Pakistani troops based at the Salala checkpoint, about 2.5 km (1.5 miles) from the Afghan border.

The Pakistani Foreign Office expressed outrage at the attack: “Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has condemned in the strongest terms the NATO/ISAF attack on the Pakistani post,” ministry spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua said in a statement. “On his direction, the matter is being taken (up) by the foreign ministry in the strongest terms with NATO and the U.S.”

An Afghan border police official, Edrees Momand, said that joint Afghan-ISAF troops near the Salala outpost had fought and detained several Pakistani Taliban yesterday. The helicopters may have been involved in fighting those militants and misidentified the outpost as a militant base. The incident occurred a day after U.S. General John Allen met Pakistani Army Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to discuss border control and enhanced cooperation.

The Pakistan-Afghan border is a continuous challenge to shape a collaborative approach with NATO and US forces. Credit Image: Bigstock

Alternatively, the NATO command could have received bad intelligence, or been misled by the militants themselves into attacking friendly Pakistani forces. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is often poorly marked, and differs between maps by up to five miles in some places.

Masood Kasur, the governor of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, denounced what he called a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. “Such cross-border attacks cannot be tolerated any more,” he said. “The government will take up this matter at the highest level and it will be investigated.”

Pakistan has retaliated by closing the NATO’s main supply route through Pakistan. Although the United States and other NATO countries have sought to send more goods to their troops in Afghanistan through the new Northern Distribution Network, almost half of the supplies to the NATO-led ISAF pass along this route.

The closure may also have been designed for the safety of the Pakistani truck drivers.

Militants have responded to past border incidents—which were much less serious than yesterday’s–by setting the convoys of trucks on fire in the volatile Khyber tribal region, so they are safer waiting in Peshawar until tempers cool.

This raid is the largest and most serious incident of its kind. A similar incident in September 2010 killed two Pakistani troops, led to the closure of one of NATO’s supply routes through Pakistan for 10 days. Many NATO convoys were set alight or looted.

The recent intensified fighting in Afghanistan has led U.S. officials to adopt a less tolerant attitude toward the Pakistan-based Islamists who conduct cross-border attacks. Thus far, Afghan, U.S., and NATO forces have relied primarily on attacks by unmanned drones as well as search and destroy operations against Pakistani-based insurgents whenever they move into Afghan territory. U.S. officials are now considering more vigorous action to counter the threat presented by the cross-border attacks from Pakistan.

Pentagon spokespeople have always declined to comment on the U.S. rules for using military force on Pakistan’s side of the border region, but from time to time information on this issue surfaces. In August 2007, while reviewing more than one thousand pages of documents released in the course of the Army’s investigation of the death of Ranger Pat Tillman, the media discovered information regarding the rules of engagement that governed U.S. military operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border at the time of his death in April 2004.

As expected, the rules indicated that the U.S. Secretary of Defense, then Donald Rumsfeld, could order a major military incursion into Pakistan if he deemed such action necessary. In practice, the Secretary presumably would consult with his cabinet colleagues and the president before doing so. The head of U.S. Central Command could also, according to the released documents, authorize direct military action against “The Big 3” (al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden; his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri; and the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar). U.S. intelligence analysts and other observers erroneously believed that all three men probably resided in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.

More controversially, the documents specify that U.S. field commanders could, on their own authority, authorize units to “penetrate no deeper than 10km” into Pakistan in three cases: (1) during “hot pursuits” of al-Qaeda, Taliban, or other terrorist operatives fleeing into Pakistan from Afghanistan; (2) as part of U.S. Special Forces operations to recover crews of U.S. planes and helicopters that have crashed inside Pakistan; and (3) in the event that American troops are engaging hostile targets located on the Pakistani side of the border. The documents do not indicate that U.S. commanders had to seek approval from¬–or even inform–Pakistani authorities before conducting incursions into their territory. Over the years, certain U.S. commanders have apparently expanded the concept to justify either pre-emptive or preventive strikes designed to disrupt an attack before it occurs, which expands the notion of “hot pursuit” considerably. U.S. and Afghan units that have come under attack by mortars and other fire from attackers in Pakistan have engaged in retaliatory counterfire on the grounds of self-defense. They have extended this concept to encompass both the tactical (disrupting the immediate attack) and the operational (impeding the cross-border movement of the insurgents and their supplies).

The impending withdrawal of NATO combat forces from Afghanistan has led the U.S. helicopters assigned to ISAF to engage in a more aggressive campaign to defend Afghan border outposts. Taliban and Haqqani guerrillas are sallying forth from their sanctuaries in Pakistan and attacking Afghan army outposts in eastern Afghanistan, and then flee back across the border with NATO aircrews in hot pursuit.

Even before the recent incidents, NATO commanders had been justifying the cross-border attacks by citing the failure of the Pakistani army to occupy and suppress the guerrilla and terrorist bases in the tribal regions, especially in North Waziristan. The White House and the Pentagon have become increasingly frustrated by the presence of the insurgent sanctuaries on Pakistani territory and the failure of the Pakistani government to establish control there. The Obama administration has authorized a more “proactive” air campaign against the Pakistani-based militants. While still declining to send U.S. ground forces across the border into Pakistan, the Pentagon increased the use of both manned helicopter attacks along the border and unmanned aerial vehicle strikes for striking targets deeper inside Pakistani territory.

In one of these operations in September 2010, two ISAF Apache helicopters attacked a site from which the insurgents were reportedly preparing to fire a mortar at a coalition base in Afghanistan’s Paktia province. After attacking this target, which resulted in their briefly crossing into Pakistani territory, the U.S. crews concluded that they were taking small-arms fire from the Mandat Kandaho border patrol post, located some 200 meters inside Pakistan in the Kurram Agency. In self-defense, the helicopters reentered Pakistani airspace and fired two missiles that destroyed the post, killing three members of Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps and wounding three others in the process.

The whole affair was marked by confusion. The incident occurred before dawn, which made it even harder to avoid straying across the Afghan-Pakistan border. According to the Pakistani military, the Frontier Corps troops, a poorly trained and equipped tribal patrol force, fired “warning shots” to caution the helicopter crew that they had entered the territory of Pakistan’s upper Kurram Agency.

A joint NATO-Pakistani inquiry concluded that the two helicopter crews misinterpreted the shots as an attack against them and fired back.  Coalition officials considered this approach dangerous considering that NATO interpreted the existing rules of engagement as allowing coalition forces to engage targets across the border without seeking advanced permission in cases of self-defense. In Kabul, NATO staff criticized the border guards’ decision to fire at the helicopters rather that use established procedures to protest the border overflight, while in Washington, defense officials wondered why the Pakistanis did not simply try to communicate with NATO by car or radio.  U.S. officials initially resisted apologizing for the incident or offering to pay compensation to the victims’ relatives since those killed had opened fire first on U.S. forces.

However, the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs termed these overt border violations and attacks on its territory a “clear violation and breach of the UN mandate,” which authorized ISAF combat operations only in Afghanistan.   Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that an investigation was needed to assess the reasons for the attack, in effect to determine in NATO eyes “whether we are allies or enemies.”  Prime Minister Gilani told members of Pakistan’s National Assembly that his government would defend Pakistani national sovereignty at all costs: “We can never allow you [NATO] to infringe on Pakistan’s sovereignty and security. And if you will not explain your actions, compensate us and apologize for this, we can use other means. And we have other options.”

More importantly, the Pakistani officials denied that agreed rules of engagement existed that permitted coalition forces to attack and even enter Pakistani territory in reaction to insurgent threats. A Foreign Ministry statement insisted that, “there are no agreed ‘hot pursuit’ rules” and that, “Such violations are unacceptable.”  In addition to the rhetorical flourishes, the Pakistani government closed the Torkham Gate at the Afghan border for more than a week. Simultaneously, various groups of militants, perhaps with the complicity of the local Pakistani authorities, torched dozens of the oil tankers and other vehicles at various locations in Pakistan that were transporting supplies to ISAF. But Pakistani officials kept other logistics routes, including the Chaman crossing, open to NATO’s convoys. In the end, NATO officials decided to resolve the crisis by issuing various forms of regret and apologies.