Pakistan orders troops to return fire if attacked on Afghan border

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's top military commander has issued orders to the country's troops to return fire should they come under attack again from U.S.-led coalition forces, a move that's likely to increase tensions after an American-led air raid on two border outposts last week killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, issued the order in a letter to his troops that set out the rules of engagement against any “aggressor.”

The new orders came as Pakistan and U.S. officials continued to trade conflicting accounts of what happened in the incident, which American officials say came after a joint U.S.-Afghan unit took fire from the Pakistani side of the border but which Pakistani officials say was unprovoked. No American or Afghan casualties were reported in the incident, which now is thought to have occurred shortly after midnight last Saturday.

On Friday, published reports quoted unnamed U.S. military officers as saying they'd called in the airstrike on the border posts only after asking for and receiving permission for it from Pakistan.

A senior Pakistani military official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, denied those accounts, saying the U.S. went ahead “without getting clearance from the Pakistani side.” He acknowledged that the U.S. had contacted Pakistan before the attack, but he said the coordinates the U.S. gave for the proposed strike were incorrect.

“It was an unprovoked and indiscriminate attack by U.S. helicopters and fighter jets,” the officer said.

Kayani's order, distributed Thursday, could lead to a skirmish between Pakistani and coalition forces, supposedly allies, if there's another incident of “friendly fire” at the border. It also turns the deployment of more than 100,000 Pakistani troops along the country's western border from a force meant to stop the Taliban to one charged with protecting the border.

Kayani is under immense pressure due to anger within his ranks over the two-hour bombardment of the mountaintop outposts known as Volcano and Boulder. The Pakistani air force didn't respond to the attack .

It was the second time the Pakistani military had failed to respond to an incursion by American troops this year. In May, a U.S. special forces operation found and killed Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan without being detected, an incident that the military found humiliating.

“I want to emphasize and leave no ambiguity in the rules of engagement for everyone down the chain of command,” Kayani said in the letter to his troops. “When under attack, you have full liberty of action to respond with all capabilities at your disposal. This will require no clearance at any level.”

“I have very clearly directed that any act of aggression will be responded with full force, regardless of the cost and consequences,” he said.

Local commanders will read out the command communique — issued in the national language, Urdu — to their soldiers.

Kayani also clarified that the air force didn't swing into action “due to breakdown of communication with the affected posts” during the attack.

The incident happened on the border between the Afghan province of Kunar and the Mohmand section of Pakistan’s tribal area. The Pakistani posts were some 300 yards within the country's territory.

Pakistan claims that the attack continued even after it alerted NATO that its post was coming under fire. U.S. officials have claimed that the combined Afghan and American special forces squad operating close to the border came under fire from the Pakistani side, and it responded by calling in air support, which then hit the two Pakistani posts. An investigation by the U.S. military is under way.

In retaliation for the incident, Pakistan has blocked the transit of NATO supplies through its territory, ended the American use of an air base in western Pakistan and is boycotting next week’s high-level international meeting on Afghanistan in the German city of Bonn.

Pakistan’s cooperation is considered vital to stabilizing Afghanistan and, in particular, for pushing the Taliban into peace talks.

The new U.S. assertion that Pakistan had approved the strike was reported first Friday by The Wall Street Journal.

According to that account, American officials contacted Pakistani officers about the airstrike at one of the border coordination centers, where NATO, Afghan and Pakistani representatives work together. The Pakistani officers replied that no Pakistani soldiers were in the area.

The senior Pakistani military officer said, however, that the wrong location was given and that in any case Pakistan never gave permission for the strike.

Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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