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Tensions With Pakistan Remain High Despite U.S. Apology For Deadly Air Strike

  • RFE/RL

A local resident watches fuel tankers burn along the GT road in Nowshera, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, on October 7.

A local resident watches fuel tankers burn along the GT road in Nowshera, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, on October 7.

Formal apologies to Islamabad by U.S. officials acknowledge that a NATO helicopter flew into Pakistani air space and "mistakenly" killed at least two Pakistani paramilitary border troops on September 30.

The apologies were issued on October 6 by U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson and by U.S. General David Petraeus, the top commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Their statements said an investigation had determined that poor coordination between NATO and Pakistani forces led to the deaths and that the pilot thought the paramilitary troops were Taliban militants who had attacked a NATO forward-operations base across the border in Afghanistan.

But the apologies did not appear to be enough to immediately satisfy the demands of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who had called for an explanation for the attack, an apology, and compensation.

On October 7, Pakistan was continuing to stop trucks with NATO supplies from driving into Afghanistan through the Torkham border crossing -- a closure ordered by Islamabad within hours of the helicopter attack.

Trucks Targeted

Since then, convoys at stalled truck terminals and along roads in Pakistan have been repeatedly attacked and set ablaze.

Firefighters in northwestern Pakistan were trying on October 7 to extinguish a blaze that engulfed 54 trucks that were parked along a roadside in the Nowsherea district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Pakistani paramilitary forces that guard the border and truck terminals have blamed "suspected militants" for the attacks. A purported Taliban spokesman also has claimed responsibility for several of the attacks on the stalled supply convoys.

But with reports emerging that fuel in some tankers was siphoned off just before some attacks, NATO spokesman Brigadier General Josef Blotz said he was not accepting the "suspected militants" claim at face value.

"This is very unfortunate, actually. I mean this is again violence," Blotz said. "We don't know yet who actually caused [it] -- the Taliban insurgency, just criminal elements or whatever. It's just concerning."

While Blotz said NATO had built up reserves and had developed alternative supply routes that will allow it to withstand temporary disruptions like the closure of the Torkham crossing, he looked to resolve the "root issue."

"We also need to address the basic issues, the root causes actually, for all the problems we have seen over the last couple of days -- which is primarily the border-crossing insurgency, the common enemy for Afghanistan and Pakistan," Blotz said. "And we are working with the Pakistani government to address these things -- the border-crossing incident [and] the supply issues."

NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters in Brussels on October 6 that he is confident Pakistan will soon lift its blockade "in three or four days."

"It's been a little bit longer now and we understand very much the political sensitivities here. But we feel it's in Pakistan's interest as much as in our interest to address this -- first, because we want to stop militants from crossing the border; second, because these backed up convoys are becoming a security problem for Pakistan as militants torch them, and threaten the drivers, or kill the drivers, and the drivers themselves depend on the money they get from transporting these supplies."

Damning Evaluation

Adding further to tensions between the United States and Islamabad, a new White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan concludes that Pakistan is either unwilling or unable to control rising Islamic militancy along its border with Afghanistan.

The report by the National Security Council -- sent to the U.S. Congress earlier this week -- is a biannual evaluation of the war that includes input from the Pentagon. It says Pakistan's military from April through June "continued to avoid military engagements that would put it in direct conflict with Afghan Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters" in the tribal region of North Waziristan.

"This is as much a political choice as it is a reflection of an under-resourced military prioritizing its targets," the assessment adds.

Michael O'Hanlon, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution, says the report is a bit of a shock to the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. He says the report shows that officials in Washington think Islamabad is less committed to fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda than they had hoped.

But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has played down the significance of the report -- saying that "despite those challenges," the United States and Pakistan are making "important progress."

written by Ron Synovitz in Prague
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