Pakistan vehemently protested NATO helicopter strikes that killed more than 70 militants, saying on Monday that UN rules do not allow the choppers to cross into its air space even in hot pursuit of insurgents.
NATO said it launched the strikes in self-defense after militants attacked a small security post in Afghanistan near the border. Although unmanned CIA drones frequently attack insurgents hiding on the Pakistani side where coalition forces are banned from fighting, strikes by manned NATO helicopters are uncommon there. Pakistan's protest, which plays to anti-American sentiment in that country, contrasts with its muted criticism of a sharp rise in suspected drone attacks in North Waziristan - a rugged, mountainous tribal area of Pakistan largely controlled by militants who stage attacks on coalition troops across the border.
The dispute over the strikes only fuels unease between the two countries. The Pakistani military has fought Pakistani Taliban fighters, but it has resisted pressure to move against the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network. The Haqqanis, who control vast stretches of territory in North Waziristan and the bordering Afghan province of Khost, carry out attacks in Afghanistan - but not in Pakistan.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Col Dave Lapan said the US followed the appropriate protocol in the situation. "Our forces have the right of self-defense," Lapan said. "They were being attacked, and they responded."
US officials say there is an agreement to notify Pakistani officials of cross-border incidents to allow the coalition to defend itself. In this instance, coalition forces could not reach the Pakistani military before they needed to defend Afghan National Security Forces under attack, a NATO official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose the information publicly.
Pakistan denied that such an understanding exists with the military coalition, or International Security Assistance Force. "These incidents are a clear violation and breach of the U.N. mandate under which ISAF operates," Pakistan's foreign ministry said in a statement. "The said mandate terminates/finishes at the Afghanistan border. There are no agreed 'hot pursuit' rules. Any impression to the contrary is not factually correct. Such violations are unacceptable."
NATO confirmed that it launched two airstrikes on Saturday and a third attack on Monday - all in tribal regions of Pakistan located opposite an increasingly dangerous area in eastern Afghanistan. Initially, the coalition said NATO helicopters chased insurgents into Pakistani airspace. But late Monday, the NATO official said that while Pakistani air space was breached during the first strike, initial indications were that choppers involved in the second and third strikes fired from Afghan air space and hit targets on the Pakistan side of the border.
The first strike occurred after insurgents, firing from Pakistan, attacked an Afghan security force at outpost Narizah in Khost province. Abdul Hakim Ishaqzie, the provincial police chief in Khost, said police at checkpoints at the border came under attack, engaged the militants in a gun battle and then called for air support.
The top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, described the clash in Khost as an example of NATO forces being out in front of the enemy.
Speaking to reporters after a tour of the main U.S. detention center in Afghanistan near Bagram Air Field, Petraeus said the air strike killed nearly 60 members of the Haqqani faction, which frequently attacks coalition troops.
"They were trying to infiltrate from Pakistan into Afghanistan in Khost, and attacked two Afghan border police posts, and ISAF forces responded and caught those out in the open there," Petraeus said, adding that NATO recently increased its force in Khost. The second strike, which killed four insurgents, occurred when helicopters returned to the border area and were attacked by insurgents again firing from across the border in Pakistan. "The helicopters returned to the scene and they received direct small arms fire and, once again operating in self-defense, they engaged the insurgents," U.S. Capt. Ryan Donald, a coalition spokesman said.
The NATO official confirmed that the coalition carried out a third strike, killing 10 insurgents who were firing at coalition forces. Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said two NATO helicopters fired down on the village of Mata Sanger in the Kurram tribal area - across the border from the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Nangarhar.
Meanwhile, in southern Afghanistan, NATO pressed ahead Monday with a combat operation to drive Taliban fighters from areas around the southern city of Kandahar in the insurgent heartland. The push in Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency, is a key part of the U.S. war strategy to rout insurgents from populated areas and rush in development aid and better governance. "We have begun the operations into Zhari and Panjwai (districts), which turns out to have been a safe haven for the Taliban for some five years and only in recent months, when we increased the density of our forces, has there been a recognition of how significant that safe haven has been," Petraeus said. The commander noted that the number of Afghan security forces, civil order police and commandoes outnumber U.S., Canadian and other forces operating in the two districts.
Coalition forces are moving into two or three areas around Kandahar at once to pressure the Taliban "so they don't get the chance to run away," said Shah Mohammad Ahmadi, chief of Arghandab district northwest of the city. "Before, when we have tried to get rid of the Taliban, when we cleaned one area we found more Taliban in a different one."