United States forces conducted their first ground assaults into Pakistani territory from bases in Afghanistan early Wednesday morning in a raid on a suspected Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan, one of Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. The attack has caused an uproar in Pakistan and raised concerns of a new period of tension between the US and its valuable, nuclear-armed ally in the war on terror, which has entered a period of political uncertainty after the resignation of long-serving president Pervez Musharraf last month.
The US has not officially commented on the raid, and leaders of the US-led NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan deny any knowledge of the attack, reports Reuters. But one US official, speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the attack had occurred.
The Pentagon has refused to comment officially on the attack, but several defense officials acknowledged that U.S. military activity had taken place inside Pakistan.
The senior U.S. official said a small number of U.S. helicopters landed troops in the village near Angoor Adda in South Waziristan, where Taliban and al Qaeda fighters have hunkered down over the years.
Local media reports said the troops came out of a chopper and fired on civilians. The U.S. official said there may have been a small number of women and children in the immediate vicinity, but when the mission began "everybody came out firing" from the compound.
He said the U.S. troops specifically attacked three buildings in the compound. They were believed to contain individuals responsible for training and equipping insurgents who have been crossing the border into Afghanistan in increasing numbers in recent months and staging large-scale, high-profile attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.
Some officials and analysts say that the raid into Angoor Adda may signal a more aggressive American strategy towards militants in Pakistan's tribal areas and their cross-border raids into Afghanistan, reports The New York Times.
The commando raid by the American forces signaled what top American officials said could be the opening salvo in a much broader campaign by Special Operations forces against the Taliban and Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, a secret plan that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been advocating for months within President Bush's war council.
It also seemed likely to complicate relations with Pakistan, where the already unstable political situation worsened after the resignation last month of President Pervez Musharraf, a longtime American ally.
"What you're seeing is perhaps a stepping up of activity against militants in sanctuaries in the tribal areas that pose a direct threat to United States forces and Afghan forces in Afghanistan," said one senior American official, who had been briefed on the attack and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the mission's political sensitivity. "There's potential to see more."
But with political uncertainty and the rising tide of violence, some fear that an aggressive American posture could do more harm than good. Speaking to the Associated Press (AP), Pakistani Gen. Athar Abbas said he feared American attacks could provoke a tribal rebellion against Islamabad, which would completely derail counterterrorism operations in the region.
He said the attack would undermine Pakistan's efforts to isolate Islamic extremists and could threaten NATO's major supply lines, which snake from Pakistan's Indian Ocean port of Karachi through the tribal region into Afghanistan.
"We cannot afford a huge uprising at the level of tribe," Abbas told AP. "That would be completely counterproductive and doesn't help the cause of fighting terrorism in the area."
Bloodshed in the tribal areas has become increasingly common in recent weeks. Until a cease-fire was announced last weekend, the Pakistani Army had killed hundreds of militants in the Bajaur tribal region. In a separate incident on Wednesday, Pakistani forces killed 30 militants in a gun battle in the Swat Valley, another site of fierce military-militant clashes, reports Agence France-Presse. On Thursday morning, 25 police recruits were kidnapped by Taliban forces in the tribal areas while on their way to a training center.