Pakistan Orders Troops to Return Fire if Attacked on Afghan Border

Islamabad – Pakistan's top military commander has issued orders to the country's troops to return fire should they come under attack again from U.S.-led coalition forces in a move likely to increase tensions after last week's American-led raid on two border outposts that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, issued the order in a letter to his troops that set out the rules of engagement against any “aggressor.”

The new orders came as Pakistan and U.S. officials continue to trade conflicting accounts of what happened in the incident, which U.S. officials say came after a joint U.S.-Afghan unit took fire from the Pakistan side of the border but which Pakistani officials say was unprovoked. No American or Afghan casualties were reported in the incident, which is now believed to have occurred shortly before midnight last Saturday.

Kayani's order, issued Thursday, could lead to a skirmish between Pakistani and coalition forces, supposedly allies, if there were another incident of “friendly fire” at the border. It also turns the deployment of over 100,000 Pakistan troops along its western border from a force meant to stop the Taliban to border protection duty.

Kayani is under immense pressure from anger within his own ranks over the two-hour bombardment by the helicopters of the mountain-top outposts known as Volcano and Boulder. The Pakistani air force did not respond to the attack and there are competing accounts of what communications occurred between the two sides just before and during the incident. It followed the humiliation for the Pakistani military in May this year when a U.S. special forces operation that found and killed Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan went undetected by the Pakistani military.

“I want to emphasize and leave no ambiguity in the rules of engagement for everyone down the chain of command,” Kayani said in the letter to his troops. “When under attack, you have full liberty of action to respond with all capabilities at your disposal. This will require no clearance at any level.”

“I have very clearly directed that any act of aggression will be responded with full force, regardless of the cost and consequences.”

The command communiqué, issued in the national language Urdu, will be read out by local commanders to their soldiers.

Kayani also clarified that the air force did not swing into action “due to breakdown of communication with the affected posts” during the attack, leaving the situation confused.

The incident happened on border between the Afghan province of Kunar and the Mohmand part of Pakistan’s tribal area. The Pakistani posts were some 300 yards inside Pakistani territory.

Pakistan claims that the attack was “unprovoked” and continued even after it alerted NATO to the fact that its post was coming under fire. U.S. officials have claimed that the combined Afghan and American special forces squad operating close to the border came under fire from the Pakistani side, from suspected militants, and they responded by calling in air support — which then hit the two Pakistani check posts. An investigation by the U.S. military is under way.

In retaliation for the incident, Pakistan has blocked the transit of NATO supplies through its territory, ended the American use of an air base in western Pakistan and is boycotting next week’s high-power international meeting on Afghanistan in the German city of Bonn.

Pakistan’s co-operation is considered vital to stabilizing Afghanistan and in particular for pushing the Taliban into peace talks.

Separately, Pakistan said that, on the night of the attack, they had been given the wrong coordinates for the location of the proposed strike by the coalition and then the U.S. went ahead “without getting clearance from the Pakistani side.”

“It was an unprovoked and indiscriminate attack by U.S. helicopters and fighter jets,” said a senior Pakistani military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

He denied an account put forward by American officials, carried Friday in The Wall Street Journal, that they had checked the location with Pakistan first and the fatal strike had been given the go-ahead.

U.S. officials are claiming that before calling in the air strike on a suspected Taliban encampment — which turned out to be a Pakistani border post — they first contacted Pakistani officers stationed at one of the border coordination centers, where NATO, Afghan and Pakistani representatives sit together. The Pakistani representatives had said that no Pakistani soldiers were in the area, according to the American version.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Truthout has licensed this content. It may not be reproduced by any other source and is not covered by our Creative Commons license.