Pakistan keeps key border crossing shut to NATO supplies for 3rd day amid mounting tensions

By Nahal Toosi, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

No end in sight to Pakistan-NATO supply standoff

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan kept a vital border crossing closed to U.S. and NATO supply trucks for a third day Saturday, a sign that Islamabad’s desire to avoid a domestic backlash over a NATO incursion that killed three Pakistani troops is — for now — outweighing its desire to stay on good terms with America.

Two U.S. missile strikes that killed 16 people in a northwest Pakistani tribal region, meanwhile, showed that America has no intention of sidelining a tactic it considers highly successful, even if it could add to tensions.

The closing of the Torkham border crossing to NATO trucks has exposed the struggles and contradictions at the heart of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance against Islamist militancy.

Both sides need one another: The U.S. gives billions in military and other aid to Pakistan, and the U.S. and NATO use Pakistani roads to transport the majority of their non-lethal supplies to troops in Afghanistan.

But while the U.S.-led coalition is busy tackling every insurgent group they can along the Pakistani-Afghan border before America’s scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan starting in mid-2011, Pakistan has only gone after certain groups sheltering on its side — the ones it deems most dangerous to its government, not to Westerners in Afghanistan.

A recent surge in the CIA’s drone-fired missile strikes in Pakistan along with NATO operations along the frontier suggest Western forces are testing how far they can push Pakistan.

Tensions came to a head after helicopters from the military alliance were alleged to have crossed the border multiple times last weekend in pursuit of insurgents, killing dozens of militants with airstrikes. Pakistan protested to NATO and threatened to stop aiding the coalition’s convoys into Afghanistan. On Thursday, it made good on its threat to cut the supply line after two NATO helicopters killed three Pakistani paramilitary soldiers who fired warning shots at them.

On Saturday, some 150 trucks piled up near the border crossing at Torkham, waiting for the post to reopen. The truck drivers said they were worried, as militants are known to attack the supply line on a fairly regular basis.

“We are suffering and feeling fear,” driver Hayat Zaman said.

Analysts said they expected the border to be closed for two or three more days at least. Pakistan would look like it was backing down if it reopened the border too quickly, but at the same time, it wouldn’t risk its partnership with the United States by keeping the crossing closed for too long, they said.

“The whole thing is so political, they cannot quickly reopen,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a military analyst.

Siddiqa said the Pakistani army may also view this as a chance to nudge the U.S. more toward its thinking on how to deal with the range of militant groups that operate in its border regions — namely, that it’s better for Islamabad to focus for now on fighting militants attacking Pakistanis as opposed to those attacking Western troops in Afghanistan.

Critics of Pakistan say it is trying to avoid going after certain Afghan-focused militant groups, such as the Haqqani network, because it wants to keep them as allies once the U.S. leaves the region. But Pakistani security officials have often intimated that they will go after such groups in due time.

“Americans are always behaving like a man in a hurry,” Siddiqa said. “Pakistanis, on the other hand, they want to play it differently. There is a difference in perception.”

Talat Masood, a political and defense analyst, said Pakistan would probably wait until after expected meetings between its officials and U.S. representatives next week before making a decision to reopen Torkham. The fact a smaller border crossing remains open in the southwest is a sign that Pakistan is giving the U.S. and NATO some breathing room, he said.

On Friday, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the closure at Torkham hasn’t yet had an impact on operations in Afghanistan, and he believes the U.S. and Pakistan can settle the rift.

“We’re working it with them and … I believe we’ll figure a way to work our way through this,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said in Tucson, Arizona.

But the relentless missile strikes could add to tensions.

U.S. officials rarely discuss the covert program, but have described it in the past as a highly successful tool that has killed some top militant leaders. Pakistan quietly accepts the drone strikes, even reportedly providing intelligence for some. But polls show deep opposition among Pakistani citizens to the strikes.

Western officials say some of the recent CIA-controlled, unmanned drone-fired strikes — which in the past five weeks have numbered at least 23 — were aimed at disrupting a terror plot against European cities.

Missile strikes Saturday struck two separate houses in Datta Khel village in the North Waziristan tribal region, killing eight suspected militants at each site, three Pakistani intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record to the media.

Datta Khel is believed to be a hide-out for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters accused of targeting NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Those killed Saturday were believed to be insurgents working for warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

The militant commander is believed to have an agreement with Pakistan’s army that he will stay out of their way as long as they leave him alone. Repeated U.S. missile strikes against him could lead him to scrap that reported deal.

The closure of the Torkham border crossing has coincided with attacks on NATO supply trucks elsewhere in the country, including the burning of some 30 oil tankers early Friday by suspected militants in southern Pakistan’s Sindh province.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azzam Tariq told The Associated Press on Saturday that his organization was behind the assault in the Shikarpur area and threatened more attacks — including ones inside the United States.

“We ask the government of Pakistan to cut all the supply routes for NATO,” he said by phone. “We will avenge this NATO attack by targeting America. We will carry out attacks inside America.”

The Pakistani Taliban is strongest in the northwest, especially in the tribal belt, but has ties to other militant groups throughout the country. If it played a role in the attack on the NATO oil tankers, it might have relied on foot soldiers from militant groups based in Sindh.

Islamabad considers the Pakistani Taliban its No. 1 internal threat, and it has been the main focus of Pakistani army offensives in the northwest.

Associated Press writers Riaz Khan and Rasool Dawar in Peshawar and Bob Christie in Tucson, Arizona, contributed to this report.

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