ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A U.S. airstrike that killed 11 Pakistani paramilitary troops on the border with Afghanistan has dealt a new blow to already strained U.S.-Pakistani military relations.
Pakistan contended Wednesday that the Tuesday night strike was deliberate and unprovoked. The United States called it a legitimate response to an attack by militants on an American unit, and said the U.S. operation had been coordinated in advance with the Pakistanis.
"This was on purpose," Pakistan's military spokesman, Maj. General Athar Abbas, told McClatchy Newspapers. "There was no engagement on our side. We consider this a deliberate act of aggression. I'm dumbfounded."
"It's a disaster," Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, told McClatchy after the Tuesday night incident. "How can we call ourselves allies when this sort of thing happens? This will create greater mistrust. The only beneficiaries will be the militants."
The vehemence of the Pakistani official reaction was the latest sign of growing tensions with the United States.
U.S. officials in Washington say they fear that the Pakistani army is pulling back its counter-insurgency cooperation with the United States even as attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are rising. Al Qaida, meanwhile, is using its refuge in the tribal areas to plot strikes on U.S. and other targets.
The officials pointed to cease-fires the Pakistani army has reached with militant groups, and the army's refusal for the past three months to attend meetings with senior U.S. and Afghan officials of a commission that coordinates efforts to stop insurgents from crossing the rugged border into Afghanistan.
U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan quietly visited Pakistan to discuss the issue and other matters after taking command of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan last week, said the U.S. officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The rhetoric used by the Pakistani military Wednesday was the harshest it has leveled since the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. The airstrike was a "completely unprovoked and cowardly act" which "hit at the very basis of cooperation and sacrifice with which Pakistani soldiers are supporting the Coalition in the war against terror," asserted the statement issued by the military's Inter-Services Public Affairs.
The Foreign Ministry blasted the attack as "a senseless use of air power" that "tends to undermine the very basis of our cooperation with the coalition forces."
Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir summoned U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson to deliver what was described as a "strong" formal protest, and the U.S. Embassy issued a statement expressing regret for those killed and condolences to their families.
But the U.S. military defended the operation, saying it was launched after U.S.-led coalition forces engaged in an operation "previously coordinated with Pakistan" were attacked by "anti-Afghan forces" about 200 yards inside Afghanistan's Kunar Province.
"Every indication we have is that it was a legitimate strike in self-defense against forces that had attacked the coalition forces," said Pentagon spokesman Jeff Morrell. ``Our forces came under attack, came under fire from forces that had come over from the Pakistani side into Afghan territory, and then retreated into Pakistani territory and continued to fire upon our forces, even though we did not pursue them into Pakistan."
A U.S. military statement said the firefight occurred in a wooded area near the Gorparai checkpoint just inside Mohmand, one of seven agencies that comprise the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA.
The checkpoint was manned by the Mohmand Rifles, a unit of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary formation recruited from among the region's tribes that the United States plans to train in counter-insurgency operations.
"In self defense, coalition forces fired artillery rounds at the militants," the statement said. "An unmanned aerial system identified additional anti-Afghan forces joining the attack against the coalition forces."
The U.S. unit then called in the strike by two U.S. F-15s, said a U.S. defense official.
The attack killed 11 members of the Mohmand Rifles, including a major, and injured 13 others, the Pakistani military said.
Pakistan television showed pictures of the checkpoint's smoldering bunkers and flag-draped coffins containing the bodies of the troopers arriving at the airport in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province.
Many details of the incident remained sketchy.
A U.S. defense official in Washington said that there was "roughly a two-hour gap" between the initial attack on the U.S. unit and the retaliatory artillery fire and air strike.
The downturn in military-to-military relations follows February elections that ended eight years of military rule under President Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief hailed by the Bush administration as a "indispensable" ally in its "war on terrorism" but disparaged by the majority of his countrymen.
But the new coalition government has been feuding over Musharraf's future and the fate of dozens of senior judges he ousted, leaving the military to conduct policy in the FATA.
U.S. commanders complain that the Pakistani army has failed to take forceful action against al Qaida, which is believed to be using the FATA as a refuge, or against the Taliban and other Afghan and Pakistani Islamic militants also based there.
"I believe fundamentally if the United States is going to get hit, it is going to come out of the planning of the leadership in the FATA, Al-Qaeda specifically," Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday. "That is a threat to us that must be dealt with."
U.S. commanders also say that the peace deals negotiated by the Pakistani army have enabled militants to step up their attacks on Afghan and coalition forces inside Afghanistan.
Some U.S. officers in Afghanistan contend that current and former Pakistani army, intelligence and paramilitary officers have secretly continued to aid the insurgents despite Islamabad's avowed support for the Bush administration's "war on terror."
"Their policy for the last four years can be generously described as duplicitous," Army Col. Thomas Lynch, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy institute in Washington, told McClatchy this week.
Earlier this week, a Pentagon-commissioned study by the RAND Corporation, a U.S. research group, concluded that individuals in the Pakistan government are providing assistance to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Islamabad vehemently denies the charges, and the Pakistani military accuses U.S.-led NATO forces of fanning the insurgency through an over-use of firepower that's claimed the lives of civilian Pashtuns, the ethnic group that comprises the bulk of the insurgents, on both sides of the frontier.
It also complains that it's lost thousands of troops deployed at the Bush administration's request to contain the militants.
(Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad. Landay reported from Washington. Nancy A. Youssef contributed.)