Alleged NATO Attack Strains U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Pakistan says 25 of its soldiers were killed in a NATO helicopter attack on a checkpoint at the Afghan border. NATO says it is investigating what happened. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Quil Lawrence about the incident, which has further exacerbated U.S.-Pakistan tensions.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED From NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been strained since the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in May. Now Pakistan is blaming NATO for an attack that killed dozens of Pakistani soldiers. And that's causing yet another rift in the relationship.

Pakistani officials say NATO aircraft struck two outposts near the Afghan border. In response, the Pakistani government wants the U.S. to leave an airbase inside Pakistan sometimes used to launch drone strikes. And Pakistan has shut down a major supply route for U.S. forces. NATO says it's investigating.

I spoke with NPR's Kabul bureau chief Quil Lawrence about the attack and its implications.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Usually with these sort of cases, they'll say we're investigating and they won't put out any other information. But this time, they have issued a few conditional apologies. We don't know what might have prompted the strike. Pakistani officials on the other hand have not been holding back. They say that NATO crossed over a mile into Pakistan and hit their border outposts. Some were even labeling this some sort of a deliberate attack, a deliberate provocation.

I should say, I've been up on the border near where this took place on the Afghan side of the border. It's rugged, mountainous, very hard to see even during the day where exactly the border is. I've overheard helicopters that were - doing overwatch for the troops I was embedded with at the time discussing targets below and saying, I think that one's in Pakistan, I think this one's in Afghanistan. So it's very hard to tell. But still, it's hard to see how they could have gotten that far over the border and how this incident could have gone down.

MARTIN: The commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, his name is General John Allen. I understand he was actually in Pakistan just yesterday meeting with senior military officials there, working to try to improve cooperation along the border. So, how is this going to affect those efforts?

LAWRENCE: American-Pakistani relations regarding Afghanistan have just gone from bad to worse to where we're at now. Americans had for years been lambasting Pakistan for allowing Taliban safe havens and cross-border raids. And they've even accused Pakistan of training certain groups within the insurgency.

As you mentioned, the low point was probably when American Special Forces entered Pakistani airspace this spring and killed Osama bin Laden without even informing the Pakistani government about the operation. Since then, there have been some attempts at patching up and pushing for more cooperation, you mentioned the meeting yesterday. But this coming right on the heels of that meeting just seems certain to wipe out any progress that might have been made.

MARTIN: Pakistan has closed the border to NATO supplies before. How dependent is the international force on this particular crossing, Quil?

LAWRENCE: Quite dependent. For many years, the Americans - the logisticians have been trying to find alternative routes from what they know is a very shaky path through Pakistan. NATO fuel tankers are regularly attacked and burned on their way from the Pakistani port of Karachi towards the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan.

But Afghanistan is landlocked. It's surrounded by countries like Iran and Pakistan that are not terribly friendly to America or to the American war effort here. Routes by air can take up some of the slack, but it's so much cheaper to bring in fuel and supplies across Pakistan, which gives Pakistan enormous leverage.

MARTIN: Quickly, Quil, any idea how long the border crossing could stay closed down?

LAWRENCE: Just over a year ago, there was an accidental strike that killed two Pakistani soldiers. And at that time, the border was shut for 10 days. And we noticed instantly, I was on an American base around that time, and you could see shortages of certain items. This is an order of magnitude greater. So we're really not sure how long they might keep that border shut.

MARTIN: We've been talking with NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul. Thanks so much for talking with us, Quil. We appreciate it.

LAWRENCE: My pleasure.

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