NATO Helicopter Attack Kills Up to 28 at Pakistani Border Post, Supply Crossings Closed

Backlog of supply trucks at Torkham crossing after closure in September, 2010. (DIgital Globe photo on Flickr)

In September of 2010, the US and Pakistan faced a crisis in relations after the killing of two Pakistani soldiers at a border outpost.  Pakistan closed the Torkham supply crossing through the Khyber Pass as a result of the incident. Today, Pakistan has closed both the Torkham and the Chaman crossings, indicating a very strong response to an incident in which up to 28 have been killed at a Pakistani border post.

The Washington Post describes the situation in this way:

The Pakistani army on Saturday accused NATO helicopters of firing on two Pakistani border checkposts and killing 24 soldiers, and officials quickly closed a key border crossing used by convoys carrying supplies to Afghanistan.

The attack, which took place early Saturday in the Mohmand region of Pakistan’s tribal belt along the Afghan border, seemed certain to mark a new downturn in the ever-rocky U.S.-Pakistan alliance. NATO troops battling militants in Afghanistan coordinate border operations with the Pakistani military, but Pakistan does not allow coalition forces to enter or fire inside its territory without permission. Various Islamist militant factions are based in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas, from where they can easily slip across the border to attack inside Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials issued swift condemnations. The powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said in a statement that the firing was an unprovoked act of “aggression” that prompted Pakistani troops to fire in self-defense. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the matter would be “taken up by the foreign ministry, in the strongest terms, with NATO and the U.S.”

We learn from the Express Tribune that the order to close at least the Torkham crossing was not a local decision:

Official sources confirmed the suspension of supplies, adding that all containers were stopped at the Takhta Baig check post in Jamrud tehsil of Khyber Agency.

“We have suspended the supply and will not let even a single container move ahead,” the official added.

“We have stopped NATO supplies after receiving orders from the federal government,” Mutahir Hussain, a senior administration official in Khyber tribal region, on the Afghan border, told AFP. ”Supply trucks are being sent back to Peshawar.”

The Reuters description of the incident tells us the Chaman crossing also is closed:

NATO supply trucks and fuel tankers bound for Afghanistan were stopped at Jamrud town in the Khyber tribal region near the city of Peshawar hours after the raid, officials said.

“We have halted the supplies and some 40 tankers and trucks have been returned from the check post in Jamrud,” Mutahir Zeb, a senior government official, told Reuters.

/snip/

The border crossing at Chaman in Baluchistan was also closed, Frontier Corps officials said.

It would appear that the US knows it has made a huge mistake.  The Washington Post article carries this apology from ISAF Commander John Allen:

“This incident has my highest personal attention and my commitment to thoroughly investigate it to determine the facts,” said General John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force. “My most sincere and personal heartfelt condolences go out to the families and loved ones of any members of Pakistan Security Forces who may have been killed or injured.”

The Post also cites Pakistani media as reporting that there may also have been civilian casualties, which, if true, would fan anti-US feelings in Pakistan even more.

Furthermore, NATO also is not even engaging in its usual dance of first denying responsibility and then admitting it later.  From Reuters via Dawn:

A spokesman for Nato-led troops in Afghanistan confirmed that Nato aircraft had been called in to support troops during an incident near the border with Pakistan, and its forces were “highly likely” responsible for deaths of Pakistani soldiers.

“Close air support was called in, in the development of the tactical situation, and it is what highly likely caused the Pakistan casualties,” said Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The closing of Torkham for 10 days last year did not harm the US supply lines significantly, even though there was the huge accumulation of trucks seen in the photo above and a number of fuel tankers were attacked and burned in various locations throughout Pakistan in what appeared to be an intentional lowering of security along the usual transport routes through the country.  Closing both major crossings poses a larger threat to supplies, however, as about half of NATO’s supplies come into Afghanistan over the ground through Pakistan.  The key developments to watch in this closing are how long it lasts and whether convoys are attacked throughout the country again, indicating security has been lowered once again.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
26 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    Jim

    What comes in through Uzbekistan v. Pakistan? That is, are there things we don’t or can’t bring in from Uzbekistan? And isn’t there more coming from Uzbekistan now than the last time they closed the crossing?

  2. Jim White says:

    @emptywheel: Yes, there was a push to increase the flow of material through Uzbekistan (and the sources differ by quite a bit on the ratio of material moving through the two countries), but if I’m reading these articles correctly, I think we move both weapons and other supplies through Pakistan but only non-lethal through Uzbekistan. If that is the case, a prolonged closing of both Pakistan crossings could be a problem (although air supply would undoubtedly increase, along with costs). Also, if security is lowered on convoys through Pakistan, will some weapons be subject to falling into the wrong hands?

  3. Jim White says:

    A couple of additional points to contemplate:

    This certainly takes attention away from the Husain Haqqani memogate scandal but also plays just as nicely as memogate into the interests of Mansoor Ijaz and his neocon compatriots.

    Also, I have to wonder if this incident took place because there was a shortage of targeting analysts at US desks over the holiday weekend.

  4. MadDog says:

    The Pakistanis will retaliate of course. The depth of their anger will be reflected in just what that retaliation is.

    For example, in earlier bouts of recent Pakistani anger with the US, at the OBL killing as but one example, Pakistan supposedly made public the identity of the CIA station chief thereby jeopardizing his security and forcing his involuntary recall and exit from Pakistan.

    At this stage in the deterioration in the US/Pakistan relationship, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pakistani retaliation goes beyond just making public the identity of US covert individuals, but instead might cross a “red-line” by actively provide “targeting” information on US covert individuals to one or more of the militant groups resident in Pakistan.

    I’m guessing that the relationship has deteriorated so much at this stage, that there are no Pakistani “cooler heads” to prevail.

  5. ron says:

    The U.S. primary objective has been to destabilize Pakistan similar to Cambodia during the Vietnam era. It appears that the U.S. military is creating chaos given the talk of budget cuts in 2012 with civilian authorities blessings.

  6. MadDog says:

    @Jim White: If that is all Pakistan does, it will but be a slap on the US wrist. The US had been preparing for no Pakistan airfield access for their drones for some time now by relocating the drones into Afghanistan airbases.

    I’m still thinking that with this latest deadly incident coupled with the deteriorating US/Pakistan relationship, the language that Pakistan leaders are using suggests they will not merely close a Pakistan base to the US, but will seek blood retribution.

    Something without their direct fingerprints like relaxing or even withdrawing Pakistan security around US consulates in Lahore, Karachi, or Peshawar while coincidentally Pakistani militants attack one or more of them.

    It is likely not very safe for any American in Pakistan right now.

  7. emptywheel says:

    According to Xinhua, which may be propaganda, local reporting says we hit 3 checkpoints. A number of other reports say we hit two. You might hit one checkpoint by mistake. It’s hard to hit two or three by mistake.

    ISAF offers this explanation, thus far:

    A spokesman for Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, confirmed that foreign soldiers, working with Afghan troops, called in air support for an operation near the border.

    “It’s highly likely that this close air support, called by the ground forces, caused the casualties,” Jacobson told AFP.

    What do they mean by “foreign soldiers”? And how reliable were those Afghan troops?

    Because this sure feels like bad intel, at a remarkably odd time for it.

    And either it would seem this kind of thing would only happen EITHER if Pakistan had deliberately loaded up these checkpoints with Haqqani network members OR if some unreliable Afghan troops called in a strike that would give Pakistan the excuse to grab the US by the nuts.

    And I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up in the ouster of Zardari, along the way.

    It just feels like a set-up.

  8. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: From the NYT’s piece on the attack:

    “…It seems quite extraordinary that we’d just nail these posts the way they say we did,” said one senior American official who was in close touch with American and NATO officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan early Saturday…”

  9. CTuttle says:

    @MadDog: “…It seems quite extraordinary that we’d just nail these posts the way they say we did,”

    Apparently, an aspiring, young buck Target Analyst wanted to impress the Boss(es)…! ;-)

  10. Mike Banks says:

    Why not wait until we know exactly what happened before rushing off to apologise. Bin Laden obviously had Pakistani support–and not by any lowly ranked people either. Firing at a Nato chopper would be highly possible especially if those receiving fire were perceived as needing assistance. We are not Muslims, are not affiliated to any tribal group or their interests, why does anyone not see the futility of this mission. Let the Pakistanis reap the whirlwind of supporting fundamentalist power-hungry mullahs and their willing acolytes. The danger is Pakistan’s nuclear capability. What nut-case supplied that might I inquire?

  11. ron says:

    No mystery that NATO continues to piss off Pakistan creating internal problems for the government. Basic textbook military tactics create internal havoc 101 that to outsiders seems odd and against the grain but the wars purpose is to keep the military busy and focus American public opinion on the dangerous Pakistani this and that. Nothing new here!

  12. CTuttle says:

    F*ck me…! Since when are drones considered ‘close combat air support’…?

    Dick Durbin let that cat out of the bag on Faux Spew, of all places…

    “I’m deeply saddened that 24 or 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed by NATO drones, and I think we have expressed those condolences,” Durbin said. “Imagine how we would feel if there it had been 24 American soldiers killed by Pakistani forces at this moment.”

    I’d be mighty pissed and worried with a drone being my ‘air support’ when the sh*t hits the fan…! *gah*

  13. ron says:

    Elements within Pakistan are working with CIA/Military units to undermine the current political stability in Pakistan. Our goals are clearly to keep Pakistan in various states of uproar. Always these situation result in long term down drafts for American influence and this will wind up being no different.

    The more interesting pulse will be the election fall out if any between the two major parties. If little or no attention by the Republicans is directed at Obama over Pakistan then one can figure that both parties at the highest levels have been briefed.

  14. Bob Schacht says:

    @CTuttle: We might as well. After all, we have a Department of “Defense” that invades countries on the flimsiest of pretexts, and cops pepper-spray seated, immobile demonstrators in self-“defense”, claiming that they felt threatened, and villages in Pakistan get bombed for defending themselves against invaders. What’s that line from Alice in Wonderland about words meaning whatever we decide them to mean? Who was it, the Red Queen?

    Bob in HI until tomorrow

  15. Jim White says:

    @CTuttle: I don’t see reports anywhere else saying it was drones. All other reports say the attack came from helicopters. Durbin seems to have made a pretty bad mistake in his statement.

  16. Mary says:

    That sounds like an odd mistake for Durbin with his intelligence committee background, to have made. Between the references to drones v. Choppers (who surely would have had a better clue that they were firing on an existing Pak ckpoint, and the references to up to three checkpoints being hit, it all sounds odd. In a novel, you might take this incident and make it cover for inserting a covert team, especially with Pakistan making it so difficult of late for new CIA to get in country and existing CIA to wander freely.

    It’s also interesting that Obama and the US crew have been so *on talking point* with their apologies. Despite the repeatedly demonstrated success of talking point blocks, Obama has been seemingly either reluctant or incompetent at using them except in situations very orchestrated by the CIA, like the Raymond Davis matter.

    The Guardian hits some on the supply route issue here http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/27/pakistan-border-nato-afghanistan-supplies
    In a story that doesn’t make much sense to me. The story says that the us isn’t worried about the supply line crackdown because, after lengthy planning and effort to develop Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Pakistan is now “only” responsible for 30% of US supplies and 50% of NATO supplies.

    I can’t imagine any business that would view losing 30-50% of supply capability as a problem and IWould bet that if the U andT routes could easily handle more they would. Not to mention that Uzbekistan’s government boils its people alive, and that the perception (and likely reality) is that the US has been a part of the “humans for boiling” supply chain for that gov. With the Arab spring and the horrors the US has encouraged in Uzbekistan, how is the reliance on unimpeded pipelines going to work there? The article makes a quick reference to one act of sabotage in Uzbekistan, but no examination of how USSupport for a government that follows th US example that there are no rules for what can be done to anyone labelled a suspected insurgent will play out.

    I hope you get a chance for a follow up soon. I’m wondering also about the effect of drone operations if they are coming over the boarder from Afghanistan instead of internally (obviously, it creates another layer on the international act of war aspect) and whether Pakistan has capabilities to start taking out drones befor they reach destinations. Thanks for this post and looking forward to more.

  17. Mary says:

    Like The Guardian story,this Eurasia piece also points out the issues with the Uzbekistan bridge that was sabotaged, but indicates that there are “sources” readily explaining to foreign press that this isn’t an issue at all as to afghan supply.(I’m sure no one whose family has been tortured or killed in Uzbekistan would be willing to risk their life to sabotage other elements of the supply route)

    And, whle they mention the bridge, which the US can dismiss as affecting only Tajikistan trade, neither article mentions the railroad blast.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia-pacific/reports-blast-hits-uzbekistan-railroad-used-for-supplying-us-troops-in-afghanistan/2011/11/20/gIQAtdKidN_story.html

    http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64586

  18. Mary says:

    My mistake on the boiling. I’ve been out of touch, because sec of state Clinton and her fearless human rights advocates like Koh are certain that such practices have stopped.
    http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64442

    Apparently some of those millions in aid have gone towards teaching the Uzbek government the more civilized practicises the US used at the Salt Pit, involving freezing rather than boiling. An Obama led expansion of support for the Uzbek gov – what could go wrong?

  19. Jackie says:

    I have a personal interest in this because my brother is currently deployed to Garmsir Afghanistan. I am wondering how long it will take before my brother, his fellow marines, and all the others serving over there, notice a huge difference in their supplies.

    Additionally, what about Americans currently in Pakistan. Are they allowed out or is this only about the supplies.

    We are so wrapped up in keeping Pakistan our “alli” because they are nuclear armed. I use the term “alli” loosely as we all know by now that not only is the taliban held up there but apparently protected as well.

    IMO: If we would have shared our plan to get Bin Laden, then the Pakistani government would have given him the information.

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