Tensions Flare as G.I.'s Take Fire out of Pakistan
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FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan -- American and Afghan soldiers near the border with Pakistan have faced a sharply increased volume of rocket fire from Pakistani territory in the past six months, putting them at greater risk even as worries over the disintegrating relationship between the United States and Pakistan constrain how they can strike back.
Ground-to-ground rockets fired within Pakistan have landed on or near American military outposts in one Afghan border province at least 55 times since May, according to interviews with multiple American officers and data released in the past week. Last year, during the same period, there were two such attacks.
May is also when members of a Navy Seals team killed Osama bin Laden in the house where he lived near a Pakistani military academy, plunging American-Pakistani relations to a new low. Since then, the escalation in cross-border barrages has fueled frustration among officers and anger among soldiers at front-line positions who suspect, but cannot prove, a Pakistani government role.
The government's relations with the United States frayed further after senior American officials publicly accused Pakistan of harboring and helping guerrillas and terrorists. Last month, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, called the insurgents who attacked the American Embassy in the Afghan capital "a veritable arm" of the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence service.
Pakistani officials have repeatedly denied aiding fighters for the Taliban and the Haqqani militant network, who operate on both sides of the border. They insist they try to prevent cross-border incursions or violence.
In this climate, American officers were in a difficult position when describing the attacks. Many, especially those who might be identified, painstakingly tried not to blame Pakistan directly.
"I don't have the smoking gun," said Col. Edward T. Bohnemann, who commands the 172nd Infantry Brigade, which has hundreds of American soldiers in outposts near the border. "Do I have my thoughts, just because it happens so often? Yes, I have my thoughts. But there isn't a smoking gun."
But other officers viscerally rejected Pakistan's official position, and said elements of the Pakistani military or intelligence service were most likely involved.
"The level of command and control, and the level of sophistication of the IDF, is showing that there is some type of expertise being employed," said one American officer, using the acronym for indirect fire, the term the military uses for mortar, artillery and rocket attacks. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic tensions.
The precise reasons for the increase in rocket fire are unclear. Whether the surge in attacks indicates Pakistani military retaliation, an emboldened insurgency, some degree of both or some other factors cannot be determined from the data alone.
The attacks covered by the military's data included those on three American-Afghan outposts -- Forward Operating Base Tillman, Combat Outpost Boris and Combat Outpost Margah -- and usually involved two to four rockets each, officers said. The incoming fire has continued through recent days, including an attack last Friday that set buildings ablaze at Forward Operating Base Tillman.
The data release does not include attacks against American military positions in provinces other than Paktika or against Forward Operating Base Lilley, in the same province, which is used by the C.I.A.
But it does include attacks from several insurgent positions just inside Afghanistan, some within 200 yards of the border, from where rocket crews fire and then rush to Pakistan.
There were at least 102 of these so-called close-border attacks against the same outposts since May, including one on Oct. 7 that the American military called the largest and most coordinated insurgent operation in the province since 2009. Last year, during the same period in the same places, there were 13 close-border attacks. Most of the indirect-fire attacks, officers said, have been with 107-millimeter rockets, which have a range of about five miles. They were designed in China in the 1960s but have been reproduced by several nations. The exact source of the rockets was not immediately clear. Chunks of expended munitions examined by The New York Times had minimal markings, preventing a ready identification.
The perils and sensitivities surrounding the rocket fire starkly underscored the longstanding difficulties faced by the latest rotation of soldiers in the Afghan war, who are in front-line positions built by previous units, under fire, but with restrictions on firing back or when planning operations to deter more attacks.
Another officer, who analyzed each incident, said attacks often come from positions next to Pakistani military or Frontier Corps border posts. He said there has been no sign of Pakistani units trying to stop the firing, or of willingness to help American units identify who is shooting at them.
He offered a commonly held assessment: "They are getting help," the officer said of the insurgents. "It's PakMil," he added, using the acronym for Pakistani military.
Asked what evidence supported this claim, he said: "Contact with the PakMil when these incidents are going on is often nonexistent. We usually can't get a hold of these guys. When we do get a hold of these guys, they say they are not aware or can't see it. Looking at the terrain, it is very hard to believe."
The officer pointed on a map to several frequently used firing sites. Then he pointed to Pakistani military positions. Some Pakistani military positions were less than a mile from insurgent firing positions -- and had clear line of sight. The officer asked not to be identified.
Other officers added that the Americans have been lucky so far. None of the rockets have wounded an American soldier since July 1, roughly when the current unit began to arrive in the province. A 107-millimeter rocket that struck Forward Operating Base Tillman on July 27, however, wounded 18 Afghan guards, three of them fatally. The rocket was fired from Pakistan, officers said.
Several officers said that a rocket could strike an American building any day, to similar effect. "Eventually we're going to get hit, and we're going to lose soldiers," one said.
This officer was especially frustrated, he said, because an operation planned for early October, in which soldiers intended to sweep on foot through a firing position on Afghan soil beside the border, was canceled by senior officers in Bagram, where the regional American command is located.
The general who soldiers said had canceled that mission did not reply to a written request to be interviewed.
The day after the cancellation, journalists at Forward Operating Base Tillman observed rockets fired from that position onto the base. Enlisted soldiers there seethed.
The soldiers explained the usual practices.
When taking fire from Afghanistan, they said, they return fire with barrages of high-explosive and white phosphorus artillery rounds. (The burning effects of white phosphorus, they said, can detonate rockets waiting on launchers; for this reason, white phosphorus falls within rules guiding the soldiers' use of force.)
When receiving fire from Pakistan, they said, they do not return fire with white phosphorus and fire far fewer high-explosive rounds. Attack helicopters and aircraft are also less likely to fire ordnance the closer the firing position is to the border, they said, even if it is on the Afghan side.
Several soldiers complained of what they called the "politics" limiting their choices. "We're just sitting out here taking fire," one soldier said. "If they want us to do our jobs, let us do our jobs."
Senior officers described a tactical and strategic puzzle.
On one hand, soldiers said a principle of any modern military defense is that they patrol to and beyond the range of weapons systems that can menace them, and, in this case, at least to the border of the nation that the United States, in essence, has underwritten. On the other, heavy return fire against the firing positions inside Afghanistan has not prevented the attacks from continuing, so it is not clear that more fire into Pakistan would stop the cross-border firing, either.
And Colonel Bohnemann noted a complicated history. Afghan units have patrolled to the border, he said, and then been fired on by Pakistani military units who claimed they mistook the Afghans for insurgents. That fighting included Pakistani artillery fire.
The risk of having an American patrol face similar fire has been reasonable grounds for caution when planning sweeps near the border, and when returning fire over it, he said.
"Am I frustrated?" he asked. "Yes. Would I like to fire more? Yes. But do I want to be sure not to escalate out of frustration? Absolutely."
One recent attack -- which both marked an escalation from Pakistan and hinted at the coordination and expertise behind it -- occurred on Oct. 3, when four 122-millimeter rockets were fired at one of the outposts.
These rockets, known as Grads, are larger, more lethal and have a greater range than 107-millimeter rockets. They had not been fired at the American outposts here in recent memory, officers said, and perhaps had not been fired before.
Each round struck closer than the previous one, which indicated, four military officers said, that whoever fired them from Pakistan was communicating with a forward observer near the outpost, and adjusting the fire.
The Americans' counterbattery radar indicated that the firing position was less than 100 feet from a Pakistani Frontier Corps border post, several officers said.
The Americans contacted a Pakistani military officer who lives on Forward Operating Base Tillman and serves as a liaison between the two militaries. His answer cast the episode into gray.
"He called me back a few minutes later and said that border position is unoccupied and empty, and has been for years," Colonel Bohnemann said. "That may be an absolutely true statement," he added. "I don't know."
First Published October 17, 2011 12:01 am