WaPo : U.S., Afghan Troops Kill 20 in Pakistan

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

U.S., Afghan Troops Kill 20 in Pakistan

By Candace Rondeaux | Washington Post Foreign Service | September 3, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Sept. 3 -- At least 20 people were killed in northwest Pakistan on Wednesday after U.S. and Afghan troops crossed from Afghanistan to pursue Taliban insurgents in an early morning attack that marked the first known instance in which U.S. forces conducted an operation on Pakistani soil since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began, according to witnesses and a Pakistani official.

The United States has conducted occasional air and artillery strikes against insurgents lodged across the border in Pakistani territory, and "hot pursuit" rules provide some room for U.S. troops to maneuver in the midst of battle. But the arrival of three U.S. helicopters in the village of Musa Nika, clearly inside the Pakistani border, drew a sharp response from Pakistani officials.

"We strongly object to the incursion of ISAF troops on Pakistani territory," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, referring to the International Security Assistance Force, the coalition of U.S. and other NATO troops that has been battling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan since 2001.

A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan referred requests for comment on the incident to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa. A CENTCOM spokesman reached by phone in Tampa on Wednesday declined to comment.

Many details of the incident remain unclear, including the number of ground troops and helicopters involved, and whether U.S. troops were among those that left the helicopters and conducted a ground operation in the village. Pakistani military officials said two helicopters landed at Musa Nika, while villagers said there were three.

According to Pakistani military and other sources, the attack began a little after 3 a.m. when three U.S. army helicopters carrying American and Afghan troops landed in Musa Nika in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan. According to a Pakistani security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the incident, several of the troops then left the helicopters and launched a ground assault on three houses where Taliban fighters were believed to be hiding.

One of the homes belonged to a villager named Pao Jan Ahmedzai Wazir, a local tribesman, said Anwar Shah, a resident of a neighboring village. Several women and children who were inside Wazir's house and two other homes nearby were killed when U.S. and Afghan troops opened fire on the buildings. "The situation there is very terrible. People are trying to take out the dead bodies," Shah said.

Maj. Murad Khan, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, said Pakistani authorities have verified that an attack took place in South Waziristan a little before 4 a.m. But he could not confirm whether U.S. troops were involved until an investigation into the incident is complete.

Khan said that coalition troops in Afghanistan are generally barred from crossing into Pakistan's tribal areas. "We don't allow foreign troops to operate in our area. Our troops are quite capable of handling the militants on our side," Khan said.

The attack in Musa Nika comes amid debate over the rules of operation along the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent months, U.S. officials have intensified pressure on Pakistan to clamp down on Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda fighters sheltering in areas along the 1,500-mile-long border.

Owais Ghani, governor of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, immediately condemned the attack in Musa Nika, saying that several women and children had been killed in the skirmish. Ghani called the cross-border incursion a "direct assault on Pakistan's sovereignty" and demanded a response from Pakistan's military.

The Pakistani military appears to have acceded recently to U.S. pressures to step up attacks on extremists in its border areas, launching major offensives on Taliban and al-Qaeda strongholds in two of the country's Federally Administered Tribal Areas within the past two months.

Yet analysts here in Pakistan's capital say the incursion into South Waziristan could augur a new strategic turn aimed at cutting off an insurgency that threatens to engulf large swaths of Pakistan and reverse any gains made by U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a secret meeting with Pakistani Gen. Ashfaq Kayani aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean in the wake of several devastating setbacks for Western and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

U.S. and Pakistani officials have released few details about discussions at the high-level meeting, which was also attended by Gen. David D. McKiernan, NATO's top commander in Afghanistan. But a senior Pakistani military official with knowledge of the meeting said that talks between Mullen and Kayani focused in large part on the threat to coalition forces in Afghanistan emanating from insurgents operating inside Pakistan's borders. The Pakistani military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the meeting touched on a possible agreement to allow U.S. Special Forces to begin ground operations in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Abbas denied reports of any agreement for U.S. troops to operate inside Pakistani territory.

A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan said foreign forces are generally prohibited from mounting cross border attacks into Pakistan. The spokesman, who only gave his name as Sgt. Yates, said NATO forces occasionally employ artillery or aerial missiles to target insurgents who attack coalition troops from Pakistani territory, but the rules of engagement are very carefully proscribed. "Our area of operations stops at the border. We don't go over the border period," Yates said.