US and Pakistan: is it war yet?

Pakistani soldiers fired at US OH-58 Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters that were escorting Afghan and US ground troops along the volatile border Sept. 25, sparking a five-minute ground battle between the countries’ military forces. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, in New York meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said only “flares” were fired at the helicopters, and that they had strayed across the border from Afghanistan into his country’s territory. The incursion reportedly took place near Saidgai, in the Ghulam Khan region of North Waziristan.

Tech Sgt. Kevin Wallace, a US military spokesman in Bagram, said the helicopters were on a routine patrol in the eastern province of Khost when they received small arms fire from a Pakistani border post.

US Central Command spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith said that when the helicopters were fired on, the ground forces fired rounds meant not to hit the Pakistani troops, but “to make certain that they realized they should stop shooting.” The Pakistani forces fired back at the US ground forces. Smith said the US forces were a mile within Afghan territory.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman insisted the helicopters had not entered Pakistan. He described the incident as “troubling” and called on Islamabad for an explanation. “The flight path of the helicopters at no point took them over Pakistan,” he said. “The Pakistanis have to provide us with a better understanding of why this took place.”

The Pakistani military disputed the US version, saying its troops fired warning shots when the two helicopters crossed over the border—and that the helicopters fired back. A statement said: “When the helicopters passed over our border post and were well within Pakistani territory, [our] own security forces fired anticipatory warning shots. On this, the helicopters returned fire and flew back.”

In a speech at the UN General Assembly, Zardari vowed to continue the fight against terrorists but warned against incursions into Pakistan. “Just as we will not let Pakistan’s territory to be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbors, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends,” Zardari said. “Unilateral actions of great powers should not inflame the passions of allies.”

A NATO statement said the the alliance and Pakistan’s military are “working together to resolve the matter.” However, Pakistani military leaders warn that a line had been crossed with the Sept. 3 cross-border raid. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said last week that Pakistani field commanders have previously tolerated international forces crossing a short way into the country. “But after the [Sept. 3] incident, the orders are clear,” Abbas said. “In case it happens again in this form, that there is a very significant detection, which is very definite, no ambiguity, across the border, on ground or in the air: open fire.” (AP, NYT, Sept. 26; Reuters, Sept. 25)

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