This morning NATO issued a statement saying that Pakistani forces opened fire on two US helicopters near the border between Afghanistan’s Khost Province and Pakistan’s North Waziristan Agency. A US military spokesman confirmed the incident, and insisted that they did not return fire. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari insisted that the border forces only fired flares to warn the helicopters that they had crossed into Pakistani territory.
But as is so often the case with incidents along the troubled border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the first word is rarely the final word. CENTCOM spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith said that US ground forces in the area witnessed the Pakistani soldiers at a border checkpoint opening fire on the surveillance helicopters. The troops fired at a nearby hillside to get the attention of the Pakistani unit.
They succeeded in getting the Pakistani unit’s attention, which returned fire on the ground forces. This led to an exchange of fire across the border which reportedly lasted about five minutes, but reportedly caused no casualties. The Pentagon labeled the events “an unfortunate misunderstanding,” while a State Department spokesman condemned the move and said they want an explanation from the Pakistani government.
In an address to the UN General Assembly, President Zardari said his government “cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends.” He further warned that attacks which violate Pakistan’s sovereignty are empowering the militants.
American attacks in North and South Waziristan have significantly strained relations with Pakistan. Admiral Michael Mullen visited the nation last week in an attempt to improve relations and promised to respect its sovereignty. The promise may have had a greater impact, however, had US drones not launched an attack in South Waziristan just hours later.
Earlier in the week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he didn’t expect Pakistani government support for unilateral US strikes. He did, however, insist that the strikes would continue, claiming that the greatest threat to the homeland lies in western Pakistan.