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Pakistan: Relations With U.S. In Crisis After Clash Across Afghan Border

By Ron Synovitz

Relations between U.S. and Pakistani military forces are in crisis after clashes and a U.S. air strike that hit a Pakistani border post and killed 11 Pakistani soldiers.

Islamabad has called the strike "unprovoked," but the Pentagon says Pakistani troops attacked U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's army says the U.S. air strike early on June 11 on a border post in the Mohmand tribal region "struck at the very basis of cooperation" between the two countries in the war against terrorism.

Describing the attack by an unmanned Predator aircraft as "cowardly and unprovoked," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told the parliament in Islamabad that a formal complaint is being sent to Washington.

"We will take a stand for sovereignty. We will take a stand for dignity. We will take a stand for self-respect. And we will not allow our soil [to be attacked]. We totally condemn it and will take up the matter through the Foreign Office," Gilani said.

Taliban Fight

But in Washington, U.S. Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell defended the U.S. air strike as "legitimate" -- saying the Pakistani troops at the outpost were "hostile" and had attacked U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan.

"Every indication we have at this point is that the actions that were taken by U.S. forces were legitimate in that they were in self-defense after U.S. forces operating on the border of Pakistan -- in Afghanistan territory -- came under attack from hostile forces. And in self defense they called in an air strike which took out those forces that were attacking them," Morrell said.

U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan have told RFE/RL and other international media in the past that they do not trust Pakistani security forces on the other side of the border.

Pakistan is supposed to be a key ally in the U.S.-led fight against the Taliban. But U.S. commanders in southern Afghanistan have told RFE/RL that sharing intelligence with Pakistan ahead of a U.S. military operation near the border put the lives of U.S. troops at risk. The U.S. commanders say they fear elements within Pakistan's security forces share U.S. military intelligence with the Taliban -- giving them advanced warning about a U.S.-led attack or even providing information about U.S. positions that help the Taliban carry out their own attacks.

But until recently, it was unusual to hear the Pentagon make such allegations about Pakistani forces.

Low Point

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, a noted author on the Taliban militancy, says relations between the United States and Pakistani security forces appear to be at a low point since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States.

Writing as a guest columnist for the BBC this week, Rashid notes a crescendo of international criticism against Pakistan recently because of peace deals made with the Taliban in the tribal regions -- deals they say are allowing Taliban fighters to freely cross the border to attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Criticism of the peace deals has been made by U.S. officials and lawmakers, NATO commanders, European leaders, UN administrators, and the Afghan government.

June 9 marked the release of a new Pentagon-funded study by the RAND Corporation on the counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. That study alleges that individuals from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate and Frontier Corps provide direct assistance to the Taliban and other terrorist groups in the tribal regions.

The author of the study, Seth Jones, says the Taliban and other militants still find refuge in the tribal regions, the North-West Frontier Province, and Baluchistan because Pakistan's security forces have failed to root them out. Jones concludes that if Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan are not eliminated, the United States and its NATO allies will face crippling long-term consequences in their effort to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan.

Pentagon Report

Michael Shaik, an expert on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL that the report is particularly significant because it is funded by the Pentagon.

"A lot of different organizations, including ours, have been talking about this for the past several years. There has been clear evidence that the Taliban leadership has used Pakistani soil to carry out the insurgency in Afghanistan. So really, the findings of this are nothing new," Shaik said. "What is new is that it is a [U.S.] Defense Department-funded report. RAND has finally come to this realization that individuals in the Pakistani ISI and in the Frontier Corps have been aiding and abetting the Taliban. Individuals. The U.S. administration and also the Pakistani military [have failed] to take these allegations seriously."

But Shaik and other experts on security in the region also note that the RAND study does not go as far as supporting allegations made by government officials in Kabul and New Delhi -- namely, that those individuals in Pakistan's security forces and the ISI support cross-border militancy as part of a covert government plan to achieve Islamabad's foreign policy goals in the region.

Christopher Langton, head of the defense analysis department at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, tells RFE/RL that the RAND report does reflect growing frustration in Washington about Islamabad's failure to root out Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

"People in the United States are beginning to realize the limitations on Pakistan in dealing with this incredibly difficult problem. And, of course, the Taliban were created by Pakistan with western concurrence at the time. Therefore, it's very, very difficult for Pakistan to wind that clock back," Langton says.

Langton says critics of Pakistan shouldn't ignore the complex domestic political situation that Islamabad faces over the deployment of its troops near the Afghan border.

"There are significant efforts [by Islamabad]. Pakistan has lost nearly 900 troops fighting in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas. Pakistan is suffering a huge number of suicide attacks across the country. And I don't think people should forget this. That's not to say more cannot be done. It probably can. But the domestic difficulties for Pakistan are actually huge," Langton says.

Analysts do agree, however, that fighting between Pakistani and U.S. troops on the Afghan border has raised the crisis in bilateral relations to a new level.

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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