Pakistan fires on U.S. helicopters

Sunday's incident inflames debate over whether Pakistan's new president can develop an effective counterinsurgency strategy.

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Pakistan's armed forces fired on US helicopters on Sunday, the latest incident in a growing standoff between Washington, frustrated with Pakistan's counterterrorism efforts, and a newly minted Pakistani president who has resisted yielding to American pressure.

Last week Pakistan's military reiterated its intention to stop US incursions on Pakistani soil, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported.

 
Pakistan's military said today [Sept. 16] its forces had received orders to fire on US troops if they entered Pakistani territory, after a cross-border raid inflamed public opinion.

On Sunday it seems they held to their word, with government officials claiming Pakistani troops had fired on two US helicopters, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports.

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The incident happened late on Sunday near Lwara Mundi village in the North Waziristan district, where Pakistani forces have been battling Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants, they said.
 
"Pakistani forces fired at two US gunships which violated Pakistan's airspace and forced them to return to Afghanistan," a local security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
 
"The helicopters flew back after our troops fired shots at them," the official said.

Time warns that the US and Pakistan have "become locked into a confusing and potentially dangerous game of brinkmanship" over Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan.

 
U.S. military strikes on Pakistani soil are provoking increasingly strident warnings from Pakistan's military and political leadership, and they are continuing despite Washington's reassurances about respecting Pakistani sovereignty. Still, many believe the Pakistanis are engaged in ritual denunciation of U.S. actions primarily for domestic political consumption.

The border incident comes amid a fast-raging debate, inside both Washington and Islamabad, over whether Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, can muster an effective counterinsurgency plan – one that pleases Washington but does not inflame local anger, reports The New York Times.

 
While he has pledged to continue fighting militants – now thriving in the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan – it was unclear whether he would face political resistance making it more difficult to keep that promise.
 
There has always been a strong feeling in Pakistani society that using force against militants would cause them to retaliate against civilians. ...
 
Mr. Zardari also faces pressure to avoid doing the bidding of the Bush administration, because Pakistanis are largely opposed to American policies in the region.

Zardari's tightrope was highlighted on Saturday night when a massive explosion in the capital ripped apart the Marriott Hotel, killing 53 people and leaving more than 200 wounded. The attack "is being seen as a warning from Islamist militants over the Pakistani government's cooperation with the United States," The Christian Science Monitor reported on Sunday.

Zardari is due to meet President Bush in Washington on Tuesday, their first face to face meeting.

Observers say Zardari must rethink Pakistan's counterinsurgency strategy, according to Dawn, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan:

 
Since Aug 6, Pakistan has been fighting militants in Bajaur. Yet virtually no one in the country is aware of who we are fighting and why. Worse yet, it's not clear who is responsible for the operation: the political government, the military or both? Is it any surprise that the people are confused and split when they do not know who we are fighting, why we are fighting and even who 'we' is?

As Islamabad searches for clarity, Washington is pushing its own efforts to help Pakistani forces tackle terrorism, according to The Los Angeles Times.

 
A long-delayed plan to send dozens of U.S. military advisors to Pakistan to train its army in counterinsurgency could begin in a matter of weeks under a new agreement on a training base, according to the top U.S. military officer.
 
Washington for months has urged the Pakistani military to accept the training team. Pakistan has resisted, asking for additional weaponry and equipment some U.S. officials believe is best suited for its standoff with regional rival India.
 
But Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the primary stumbling block had been the fact that Pakistan could not build the training site, near the western town of Peshawar, quickly enough. The two sides have agreed to use an alternative base north of the capital.

Some Pakistani observers are worried, cautions an editorial in The Nation, another English-language newspaper in Pakistan.

 
One hopes that Islamabad would make sure that the advisors concern themselves strictly with the training work and refrain from indulging in any activity harmful to our interests. ...
 
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