Pakistan Blocks NATO Supply Route To Afghanistan

Pakistan blocks NATO trucks at border

Afghanistan-bound NATO trucks carrying supplies for NATO forces make their way through the Pakistani border town of Chaman on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010. Shah Khalid/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Shah Khalid/AP

Pakistan's government cut off a critical cross-border supply route for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Thursday in apparent retaliation for an alleged coalition helicopter strike that killed three Pakistani soldiers.

Pakistani authorities, who had previously threatened to stop protecting NATO convoys if the coalition incursions into Pakistan continued, on Thursday barred NATO trucks from carrying supplies through the Torkham border crossing near the city of Peshawar in the country's northwest.

By late afternoon, a line of more than 150 NATO vehicles was waiting to cross the border into Afghanistan, officials said.

"We will have to see whether we are allies or enemies," Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said of the border incident, without mentioning the blockade.

A permanent stoppage of supply trucks would place strains on the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan and would hurt the Afghan war effort. Even a short halt is a reminder of the leverage Pakistan has over the United States at a crucial time in the nine-year-old war.

Investigating What Happened

Pakistan says two NATO helicopters killed three soldiers manning a border post early Thursday morning in the northwest Kurram tribal agency. NATO had not confirmed the incident, but the coalition maintains that its aircraft follow rules of engagement that allow them "hot pursuit" across borders. Pakistan denies any such rule exists.  

A Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands alongside trucks carrying NATO supplies i i

A Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands alongside trucks carrying NATO supplies at the border town of Chaman on September 30, 2010. Ashgar Achakzai/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ashgar Achakzai/Getty Images
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands alongside trucks carrying NATO supplies

A Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands alongside trucks carrying NATO supplies at the border town of Chaman on September 30, 2010.

Ashgar Achakzai/Getty Images

NATO said it's investigating the Pakistani reports that coalition aircraft had mistakenly attacked its forces. The coalition has on at least one other occasion acknowledged mistakenly killing Pakistani security forces stationed close to the border.

Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for intelligence and special operations at NATO headquarters in Kabul, said coalition forces observed early Thursday what they believed were insurgents firing mortars at a coalition base in the Dand Wa Patan district of Paktia, which is next to upper Kurram.

"A coalition air weapons team called for fire support and engaged the insurgents," he said. "The air weapons team reported that it did not cross into Pakistani airspace and believed the insurgents were located on the Afghan side of the border."

Hours after the incident, Pakistani authorities were ordered to stop NATO supply trucks from crossing into Afghanistan at the Torkham border post, a major entryway for NATO materials at the edge of the Khyber tribal region, two government officials said.

Surge In Border-Area Strikes

If the latest strike was inside Pakistan, it would be the fourth such incursion in recent days.

Over the weekend, NATO helicopters fired on targets in Pakistan at least two times, killing several suspected insurgents they had pursued over the border from Afghanistan. Pakistan's government protested the attacks, which came in a month of unprecedented numbers of U.S. drone missile strikes in the northwest, inflaming already pervasive anti-American sentiment among Pakistanis.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told visiting CIA director Leon Panetta in Islamabad that Pakistan was "profoundly concerned" about the missile strikes and helicopter incursions.

"Pakistan, being a frontline ally in the war against terror, expects its partners to respect its territorial sovereignty," he said, according to a statement from his office.

The surge in attacks and apparent increased willingness by NATO to attack targets on the border, or just inside Pakistan, could be a sign that the coalition is losing patience with Pakistan, which has long been accused of harboring militants in its lawless tribal regions.

A Pakistani army statement said Thursday's airstrike targeted a checkpoint 650 feet inside Pakistan in upper Kurram, where six soldiers of the paramilitary Frontier Corps were stationed. The Pakistani troops fired warning shots at the two helicopters, which responded with a pair of missiles that destroyed the post, killed three of the soldiers and wounded the other three, it said.

The statement was cautiously worded, saying the choppers "appeared to have crossed the border." The bodies of the three dead men were taken to Parachinar, the region's largest town, one security official said.

Several hours later, officials reported another rocket strike by NATO helicopters about 9 miles from the first one. There were no injuries.

The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and because in some cases they were not authorized to release the information to the media.

Critical Supply Routes

The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is unmarked. U.S. officials have complained in the past that Pakistani security forces do little to stop the movement of militants seeking to cross over into Afghanistan and attack foreign troops there.

The other main route into Afghanistan in southeastern Pakistan had received no orders to stop NATO trucks from crossing, which they were doing as normal, said Syed Mohammed Agha, a spokesman for the Pashin Scouts border guards.

Pentagon officials said they were trying to clarify exactly what happened and were talking to the Pakistani government. A Defense Department spokesman said it was too soon to know what impact the border crossing closure would have.

"We expect this matter to be resolved through continued dialogue," Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan said.

Some 80 percent of nonlethal supplies for foreign forces fighting in landlocked Afghanistan are transported over Pakistani soil after being unloaded at docks in Karachi, a port city in the south. While NATO and the United States have alternative supply routes, the Pakistani ones are the cheapest and most convenient.

In June 2008, a U.S. airstrike killed 11 Pakistani troops and frayed ties between the two nations.

Polls show many Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy, and conspiracy theories abound of U.S. troops wanting to attack Pakistan and take over its nuclear weapons. The Pakistani government has to balance its support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan — and its need for billions of dollars in American aid — with maintaining support from its own population.

With reporting from NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Anthony Kuhn in Islamabad, and material from The Associated Press

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