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Terrorism & Security

After NATO airstrike, Pakistan soldiers given permission to return fire

Pakistan today authorized its border troops to return fire without first seeking permission, in response to last weekend's NATO airstrike that killed two dozen Pakistani troops.

By Staff writer / December 2, 2011

Pakistani supporters of Jammat-ud-Dawa, attend a rally to condemn NATO helicopters attacks on Pakistani troops, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday. Confusion and a communication breakdown prevented Pakistan's airforce from scrambling to defend troops on the ground during the deadly NATO bombing last weekend of two border outposts, the military said Friday, responding to rare domestic criticism of the powerful institution.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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For the past year, every disruption in the US-Pakistan partnership has prompted the question, "Will this incident be enough to break it?" NATO's recent deadly air strike on Pakistani soldiers raises real doubts over whether the relationship can be sustained.

Pakistan announced today that its military commanders in the border region can return fire without getting permission first – a change in the rules of engagement for what is meant to be predominantly a defensive force. The new policy, reported by Reuters, stems from a NATO strike on Nov. 26 in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.

NATO has said that it thought it was attacking a militant outpost and has apologized for the accidental strike on the Pakistani military, while Pakistan claims the attack was unprovoked. The strike has infuriated the Pakistani public, and the government and military are scrambling to appease their calls for a break with the US.

Reuters reports that the Pakistani military said today that it would have responded to the NATO strike if not for difficulty mobilizing its air force in time.

According to a preliminary explanation from US officials, constructed through accounts from several people involved, the assault force on the ground contacted a US-Afghanistan-Pakistan border control center. Unaware that it had troops on the ground, Pakistan gave the go-ahead for NATO airstrikes on the outpost, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The assault force, which was Afghan-led but included a number of American troops, was "hunting militants" in the border region when it came under fire. The group assumed the fire came from militants, but it turned out to be a temporary Pakistani military encampment. The assault force had not notified the center that it would be in the area targeting militants, according to US officials – but it did call in a request for an airstrike and received an all-clear. While Pakistan does not have veto power over airstrikes, NATO tries to keep it in the loop to avoid incidents like this one, according to the Journal.

According to Reuters, Pakistan has denied authorizing the strike. 

Pakistan may not have, but it could also be hedging, unsure of how to handle the immense public anger. The Los Angeles Times reports that "the rage coursing through Pakistani society" makes this time different, and that public pressure to break with the US is "higher than ever." The pro-US Pakistani government, which has been working with the US since 9-11, will have to take a harder line, or risk losing power.

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