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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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Pakistan: Friend or Foe?

September 30, 2010 - 3:49 PM | by: Justin Fishel

WASHINGTON — For the third time in one week NATO aircraft have crossed the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan and carried out strikes against enemy forces in what NATO and Pentagon officials have described as acts of self defense.

But in a strike that occurred early Thursday morning in a area of Pakistan near Afghanistan’s Paktiya province, NATO helicopters killed 3 Pakistani soldiers they mistook for enemy militants.

According to a statement released by Pakistan’s government shortly after the incident, 3 of its Frontier Corps troops fired their rifles towards the NATO aircraft to indicate they were crossing into sovereign territory. “Instead of heeding to the warning, helicopters went to fire two missiles, destroying the post. As a result, three Frontier Corps soldiers have embraced shahadat (killed) and three have been injured,” the statement read.  NATO has since apologized to the Pakistani military and the families of the soldiers killed and injured.

Now it appears Pakistan has responded to the cross-border raids by blocking a vital supply route into Afghanistan from at the Torkham border crossing, better known as the Khyber pass. It’s one of the largest supply routes into the country and it’s used heavily by U.S. and NATO truck convoys.

All this follows a month of increased CIA operated drone strikes within Pakistan targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban militants. Although Pakistan’s government quietly approves of these killings, public outrage over cross border raids and a general increase in the number of drone strikes puts the government in a difficult position.

When CIA director Leon Panetta visited Islamabad this week Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani hold him he is “profoundly concerned” about the missile strikes and helicopter attacks. Pakistan “expects its partners to respect its territorial sovereignty,” he said, according to a statement from his office. At the same time Panetta tried to convince the Prime Minister to crack down on militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

It’s also likely Panetta brought up the fact that the mastermind behind a foiled plot to conduct a Mumbai-style attack targeting Western tourists at hotels in Europe, Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri, is based in Pakistan.

President Obama made clear in his speech at West Point last December that cooperating with Pakistan is key to winning the Afghan war. “Our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan,” Obama said.

But in the wake of these increased tensions serious questions are being raised about rules of engagement for US and NATO forces operating across the border, as well as the level to which these forces are communicating with Pakistan.

It’s feared that if the relationship between these two militaries deteriorates further, Pakistan could lose interest in fighting its own terrorist save havens.

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