NATO Strikes Kill Pakistani Forces, Raising Tensions

The country’s supreme army commander called them unprovoked acts of aggression, in a new flash point between the United States and Pakistan.

The Pakistani government responded by ordering the C.I.A. to vacate the drone operations it runs from Shamsi Air Base, in northern Pakistan, within 15 days and by closing down the two main NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, including the one at Torkham. NATO forces receive roughly 40 percent of their supplies through that crossing, which runs through the Khyber Pass, and Pakistani officials gave no estimate for how long the routes might be closed.

In Washington, American officials were scrambling to assess what had happened and weigh the implications on a relationship that took a sharp turn for the worse after a United States military helicopter raid killed Osama bin Laden near Islamabad in May, and that has deteriorated since then.

“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. “Whether they were going after people or whether there was some firing from the Afghan side of the border, then the Pakistan side, we just don’t know. It’s real murky right now. Clearly, something went very wrong.”

The American ambassador in Islamabad, Cameron Munter, called an emergency meeting and expressed regret over the Pakistani casualties. And Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, offered condolences to families of the dead and promised an investigation. “This incident has my highest personal attention and my commitment to thoroughly investigate it to determine the facts,” he said in a statement.

The strikes, which Pakistani officials said had involved both helicopters and fighter jets, took place overnight at two military posts in Salala, a village in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region near the border with Kunar Province in Afghanistan. At least 40 soldiers were deployed at the posts, which according to Pakistani officials were established to repulse cross-border attacks by Afghan militants and the Taliban. Pakistani military officials said NATO aircraft had penetrated roughly a mile and a half into Pakistan to make the strikes.

Such attacks have been at the heart of an increasingly hostile relationship between Pakistani and American officials. The United States has demanded that Pakistan do more to stop militants based in its territory, particularly from the feared Haqqani faction and Al Qaeda, from crossing into Afghanistan to attack American forces. And United States forces in eastern Afghanistan say they have taken more mortar and rocket fire from positions at or near active Pakistani military posts in recent months.

Conversely, Pakistani officials have been enraged by the raid on Bin Laden and repeated American drone strikes against militants in the northwestern tribal regions, which they consider breaches of the country’s sovereignty.

In a statement, the Pakistani military said its top commander, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, praised troops at the border checkpoints for responding “in self-defense to NATO/ISAF’s aggression with all available weapons,” though there was no confirmation by NATO or American officials of return fire. The statement went on to say General Kayani had “directed that all necessary steps be undertaken for an effective response to this irresponsible act.”

President Asif Ali Zardari also strongly condemned the airstrikes, saying he had lodged strong protests against NATO and its International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of Pakistan cut short a vacation, returning to the capital and calling a meeting of his cabinet’s defense committee. On Saturday night, the meeting culminated in the demand to vacate the drone operations at Shamsi and the announcements that both supply routes had been closed. The base, about 200 miles southwest of Quetta in Baluchistan Province, is home to a secondary C.I.A. drone staging area. But the end of operations there would restrict the agency’s flexibility in using airstrikes against militants in the tribal regions.

Masood Kausar, the governor of northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, called the attacks “unprovoked and highly condemnable” while talking to Aaj TV, a news network.

“This incident is highly regrettable and condemnable,” he said. “We think there is no justification. This is not a small incident. It is being taken very seriously.”

The Torkham crossing is the main one for fuel convoys running into Afghanistan. The other crossing that was closed, at Chaman, is in southwestern Baluchistan Province.

After coalition helicopters killed three Pakistani security guards in a series of strikes a little more than year ago, Pakistan responded by temporarily closing the border crossing at Torkham. But that closing was just for 10 days. And the Pakistani government did not halt supply traffic even after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed, an event that enraged officials here when it became clear it had happened with no advance notice to the government.

The flow of supplies was also interrupted in June 2008 after a NATO strike killed 11 soldiers belonging to a paramilitary force called the Frontier Corps.

The border strikes on Saturday came a day after General Kayani and General Allen met in Rawalpindi. The two “discussed measures concerning coordination, communication and procedures between the Pakistan Army, ISAF and Afghan Army, aimed at enhancing border control on both sides,” according to a statement by the Pakistani military.

The border strikes will further aggravate the widespread anti-American sentiment in the country, analysts here said.

“Even if the U.S. thinks Pakistan is an unreliable and undependable ally, how does it think such an incident will go down with public opinion in Pakistan?” asked Omar R. Quraishi, the opinion editor at The Express Tribune, an English-language daily in Karachi.

“The U.S. is funding civil society initiatives to the tune of millions of dollars, but attacks like this won’t help,” he said in an interview. “The U.S. should take more care.”

Imran Khan, an opposition politician who has recently experienced a surge in his public support, urged the Pakistani government to break its military alliance with the United States.

“The time has come to leave America’s war,” Mr. Khan thundered on Saturday evening while speaking at a political rally in Shujaabad in Punjab Province.

“The attack was carried out by those for whom we have destroyed our own country,” he added, alluding to a popular perception here that Pakistan has suffered economically and has lost lives because of its partnership with the United States. NYT