September 3, 2008, Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan – Helicopter-borne American Special Operations forces attacked Qaeda militants in a Pakistani village near the border with Afghanistan early Wednesday in the first publicly acknowledged case of United States forces conducting a ground raid on Pakistani soil, American officials said.
Until now, allied forces in Afghanistan have occasionally carried out airstrikes and artillery attacks in the border region of Pakistan against militants hiding there, and American forces in “hot pursuit” of militants have had some latitude to chase them across the border.
But 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.”
While most American troops in Afghanistan operate under a NATO chain of command, the Special Operations forces who carried out this attack answer only to American commanders.
The Bush administration has criticized Pakistan in recent months for not doing enough to curb attacks by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which keep bases inside the Pakistani tribal region and cross the border to attack American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The action by the American forces on Wednesday in the border village appeared to be an effort to stanch the raids by Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militants.
There were conflicting reports about civilian casualties in the operation. American officials said one child had been killed in the strike; a Pakistani military spokesman said the American troops had opened fire on villagers, killing seven people.
After the attack, Pakistan lodged a “strong protest” with the American government and reserved the right of “self-defense and retaliation,” said the Pakistani military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had weighed plans to kill or capture top leaders of Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, but Mr. Rumsfeld, for all his public bravado, wanted to tread cautiously in Pakistan for fear of undermining Mr. Musharraf. With Mr. Musharraf’s resignation, that issue is no longer a concern.
Many details of Wednesday’s attack remain unclear, including how many commandos and helicopters were involved, and whether the strike was planned earlier against the Qaeda targets or precipitated by militant attacks against allied forces in Afghanistan.
American military spokesmen at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and the Pentagon declined to comment on the strike. The spokesmen did not deny that the attack had occurred.
Three other senior American officials provided some details of the attack, but only on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding any aspect of the Joint Special Operations Command, whose “special mission units” carry out the military’s most secret counterterrorism missions.
In a telephone interview, General Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, said the soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force, which is made up of NATO and American forces, had created “new problems” for the Pakistani soldiers based along the border.
By killing civilians, General Abbas said, there was now a great risk of an uprising by the tribesmen who supported the Pakistani soldiers in the border area. The tribesmen, who oppose the Taliban and support the Pakistani forces, will now be extremely angry, he said.
“Such actions are completely counterproductive and can result in huge losses, because it gives the civilians a cause to rise against the Pakistani military,” he said.
The governor of North-West Frontier Province, Owais Ahmed Ghani, said the helicopter attack occurred about 3 a.m. and killed 20 people. Local residents said most of the dead were women and children, but this could not be confirmed.
One American official said that at least one child had been killed, and that several women who died in the attack were helping the Qaeda fighters.
The governor, the most powerful civilian leader in the province, which abuts South Waziristan, condemned the attacks and called for retaliation by Pakistan.
A senior Pakistani official called the commando raid a “cowboy action” and said it had failed to capture or kill any senior Qaeda or Taliban leaders.
“If they had gotten anyone big, they would be bragging about it,” he said.
The Pakistani official said that American military officers in the field had become increasingly vocal about the need for unilateral strikes inside the tribal areas, but that their intelligence about the location of militant leaders was no better than it had been in the past.
But in the past, the senior ranks of the Pakistani military have supported, in principle, these kinds of missions. The country’s civilian political leadership at a minimum may have to criticize such missions on the grounds of sovereignty and the risk of civilian casualties.
According to an earlier description of the military action on Wednesday given by a Taliban commander and local residents, the attack was aimed at three houses in the village of Jalal Khel, also known locally as Moosa Nika, in the Angoor Adda area of South Waziristan, near a stronghold of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and less than a mile from the border with Afghanistan.
The Taliban commander, known by the nom de guerre Commander Malang, said the attack took place close to a Pakistani military position on the border and killed 15 people. But the Pakistani military took no action, he said.
According to Commander Malang, three helicopters flew into the Pakistani side of the border and one of them, carrying soldiers, landed. Soldiers who came out of the helicopter opened fire on people in the village, he said, while the other two helicopters hovered overhead.
The commander, who is based in the town of Wana, said he was not at the scene. He received the description via radio, he said. The soldiers “killed innocent people” in the village adjacent to a security post of the Pakistani Frontier Corps. There was no immediate way to independently confirm the account of the Taliban leader.
General Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, said the American commandos spilling from the helicopter had opened fire on villagers, killing seven people.
Any incursion by American or NATO aircraft into Pakistan in so-called hot pursuit of Taliban militants is a contentious issue for Pakistan.
Publicly, the Pakistani authorities say their country’s sovereignty must be respected, and they always condemn such raids.
At the same time, Washington has become more vocal about increased attacks by Taliban and Qaeda forces crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan to fight coalition forces.
Last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met secretly with the Pakistani army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, on an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea to discuss how to combat the escalating violence along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Officials briefed on the meeting said a wider campaign by American Special Operations forces in the tribal areas was not discussed, although there had been growing expectations among Pakistanis that American units would respond by attacking more forcefully into Pakistani territory.
The Angoor Adda area is on the border with Afghanistan, and its mud-walled compounds are known as a center of Taliban and Qaeda strength.
Sher Khan, a phone company employee in Angoor Adda, said in a telephone interview that 19 people were killed in the raid. He said most of the dead were women and children.
A Pakistani intelligence official in South Waziristan said in a telephone interview that a group of Taliban had crossed the border into Afghanistan before an attack late Tuesday. In response, the Afghan National Army called for air support, the intelligence official said, speaking in return for customary anonymity.
The helicopters chased the Taliban militants across the border back into South Waziristan, according to the intelligence official’s account.
But the Taliban militants escaped, the official said.