Updated 9/4 11:45 AM EST
At approximately 3 AM this morning, US helicopters landed in a tiny village in South Waziristan, not far from the Afghanistan border. Troops emerged and opened fire on the villagers, killing at least 20 civilians according to North-West Frontier Province Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani. Governor Ghani condemned the attack as “cowardly” and urged the Pakistani military “to defend the sovereignty of the country” with a response to the attack.
And while neither NATO or American spokesmen would comment officially on the incident, CNN quotes a senior US official as having confirmed the operation, which was reportedly linked to recent attacks on US troops in Afghanistan. The New York Times quotes another official who was briefed on the incident predicting that this “is perhaps a stepping up of activity against militants in sanctuaries in the tribal areas” and that there is potential for further such moves. NATO missile and artillery strikes against targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas are not uncommon, but this is the first confirmed operation involving US ground troops in Pakistan.
Reaction from the Pakistani government has been universally negative. In addition to the harsh comments from Governor Ghani, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador Anne Patterson to lodge a formal protest against “the gross violation of Pakistan’s territory and immense loss of civilian life,” and they further warned that the action was “counter-productive”. Both houses of Pakistan’s parliament passed resolutions condemning the attack. Another spokesman from the Pakistani government confirmed that the operation occurred without coordination from Pakistan, and was based on faulty intelligence. But perhaps the harshest comments of all came from a Pakistani Military spokesman, who was quoted in the Pakistani media as saying there was no basis for the attack, and that Pakistan reserved the right to retaliate to protect its citizens.
Tribesmen in the region launched a protest of their own in the wake of the attack, marching and chanting anti-American slogans. Ikram Sehgal, editor of the Defence Journal, is quoted as being surprised at the timing of the attack, which took place just three days before Pakistan’s presidential election. Pakistani Peoples Party candidate Asif Ali Zardari, long the clear front-runner, has in the past 10 days lost his party’s largest coalition partner, publicly clashed with members of his own party, and declared a ceasefire in a region where his government had loudly rejected a ceasefire just a week earlier, in a reported attempt to court votes from tribal area legislators. As this attack serves to further undermine his candidacy, he penned a column in this morning’s Washington Post in which he declared that he “stands with the United States” in its battle against terrorism, and predicted that his election on Saturday would ensure Pakistan’s victory over terrorism.