NATO, Pakistan exchange fire on Af-Pak border

Senator John Kerry flew to Pakistan this weekend to smooth over the rupture in relations between the US and Pakistan following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden within walking distance of Pakistan’s military academy.  What kind of progress did Kerry make?  The New York Times reports that Pakistani forces fired on NATO helicopters over Pakistani territory, sparking a skirmish that left two Pakistanis wounded:

Pakistani ground troops opened fire on twoNATO helicopters that crossed into Pakistan’s airspace from Afghanistan early Tuesday morning, the Pakistani Army said in a statement. A firefight then briefly erupted between NATO forces and the troops, the statement said, and two Pakistani soldiers were wounded.

The clash took place at Admi Kot Post in the North Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan, an area that American officials have long regarded as a haven used by militants to attack coalition forces inside Afghanistan. NATO officials said they were looking into the incident, and could not immediately confirm whether the helicopters had indeed entered Pakistan’s airspace.

The exchange of fire between NATO and Pakistani forces appeared likely to worsen frictions between Pakistan and the United States. The Pakistani Army “lodged a strong protest and demanded a flag meeting,” the statement said, referring to a meeting between officials from Pakistan and NATO.

This isn’t the first time that the two sides have exchanged fire.  Eight months ago, a similar incident left two Pakistani soldiers dead.  NATO has operated in Waziristan with tacit unofficial permission while Pakistan’s government protests the incursions, but it’s still a violation of Pakistani airspace, and reactions like these will occur whether Islamabad turns a blind eye or not.

Still, coming so soon after the OBL raid, it does appear that the Gilani government — or at least the Army — wants to send a message to NATO about further cooperation in the war in Afghanistan.  Gilani himself flew to China to improve ties, which the Times reports is an unsubtle signal to the US that Pakistan has other options than the US.

All of this makes Kerry’s mission very, very difficult from the start.  According to McClatchy, it doesn’t appear to be going well:

The United States and Pakistan sought Monday to avert a rupture in relations over the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but it was unclear how much progress they made beyond a vague accord to “work together” on future operations against “high value” militants hiding in Pakistan.

Pakistani civilian and military leaders also agreed in talks with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., to return the wreckage of a top-secret, radar-evading U.S. helicopter that was damaged and intentionally destroyed during the May 2 assault by U.S. Navy SEALs on bin Laden’s hideout.

It was clear, however, that Kerry and his interlocutors made little headway on the core disputes that had plunged relations between the putative allies to their most acrimonious level in 10 years even before the raid that embarrassed and enraged Pakistan’s powerful military, which was only informed after it was over.

Kerry did his best to argue that the US didn’t withhold notification out of a lack of trust, but the “best” is still threadbare:

Kerry defended the administration’s decision not to inform Pakistan in advance of the raid, saying that few U.S. officials were taken into confidence, either.

“It was not a matter of trust, but imperative of operational security,” he said.

Well, yes, but the reason it was imperative of national security is because … we can’t trust the Pakistanis.  The point about US officials is true but irrelevant; we didn’t invade the US to conduct the mission.  We tried trusting the Pakistanis on an OBL mission during the Clinton presidency, and the Pakistanis tipped off OBL before we could get him.  Kerry’s doing his best to obliterate the obvious conclusion through diplo-speak, which is exactly what he’s supposed to do in this circumstance, but we shouldn’t be surprised to find that no one’s buying it, least of all the Pakistanis.

The eruption of a skirmish on the border will only complicate the issue for Kerry and the Obama administration.  The OBL mission was worth the price we’re paying with Pakistan now, but perhaps other border missions should be rethought for a while until we get the Pakistanis calmed down.  Unless we have hot data on a high-value target that we simply can’t pass up, the cost of further provocation may well be the war itself.