Pakistan warns against more Nato raids
Pakistan has told Nato leaders it will stop protecting US and Nato supply lines to Afghanistan if foreign aircraft stage further cross-border attacks against fleeing militants, security officials said Tuesday.
If carried out, such a threat would have major consequences on the war in Afghanistan as well as on Pakistan's relationship with the United States, which is vitally important for both nations. Analysts said there was little or no chance of Islamabad carrying though with it, however.
The threat was therefore seen as mostly aimed at tamping down criticism inside Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment runs high and where conspiracy theories that the US army is poised to invade the nation from bases in Afghanistan are rampant.
But it was also a clear sign of Pakistani unease at the attacks on Saturday and Monday by Nato aircraft against militants in its northwest tribal areas and a reminder of the leverage the country has in its complicated alliance with Washington.
While Pakistan has remained largely silent about US drone strikes in the northwest, Pakistani security officials say they are drawing a line at direct interference by US and Nato manned aircraft. They rejected Nato statements that Nato air defense teams were acting to protect an Afghan border post against militants who had attacked it, then fled to Pakistan.
The Pakistani officers said Pakistan's foreign ministry had conveyed the threat to stop protecting Nato convoys to Nato headquarters in Brussels. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give their names to the media.
If there are any more attacks by US or Nato choppers "we will not be able to ensure the safety of their convoys," one of the officials told an Associated Press reporter at a private briefing.
On Monday, the foreign ministry strongly criticized the attacks and warned of "response options" if they happened again.
Some 80 percent of non-lethal supplies for foreign forces fighting in landlocked Afghanistan cross over Pakistani soil after being unloaded at docks in Karachi, a port city in the south.
Pakistani security forces provide security for the convoys, which are often attacked by militants as they travel north.
While Nato and the United States have alternative supply routes, the Pakistani ones are the cheapest and most convenient.
In Washington, Defense Department spokesman Col Dave Lapan said he was unaware of any threats by Islamabad to stop providing convoy security. But "just on the face of it, if they were to stop providing security to our convoys that would be problematic. We would work with the Pakistanis to make sure that wouldn't happen."
The border incidents are alleged to have happened after insurgents attacked Nato forces in Afghanistan then retreated back across the unmarked border.
Vice Admiral Michael LeFever, the senior US military representative in Pakistan, said the helicopters had not crossed into Pakistani territory, but had fired into it. He said such cross-border incidents were quite common and were usually coordinated with Pakistani military officers at the border.
LeFever suggested that foreign forces in the first incident had coordinated with their Pakistani counterparts but that senior Pakistani military officials got wind of them via media reports before their own officers were able to report them.
He dismissed suggestions of a serious rift in Pakistan's alliance with the United States as a result of the incidents.
"The relationship has ebbed and flowed," LeFever told the AP.
Talat Masood, a security analyst and former Pakistani army general, said even though Pakistan has reduced its criticism of the missile strikes, it had to draw the line somewhere or it risked being seen as more interested in doing America's bidding than protecting the country's sovereignty.
While Pakistan may be unlikely to pull security from the Nato convoys, the threat is more credible than others it could make and does remind the US of the leverage the country has in the relationship.
"What other means of countering these helicopter attacks does Pakistan have?" said Masood. "They cannot attack the helicopters or the troops because that would really break up the relationship.
He said one possible explanation for Pakistan's reaction was its ever-present obsession with India, its historical and much larger enemy. He said the army was sending a signal that it would not accept Indian forces one day using the same justification to launch cross-border attacks on militants sheltering on its eastern flank.
The anger over the incursions contrasts with Pakistan's relative silence over American drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in the northwest. There have been more attacks this month than in any other since they began in earnest in 2007.