- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (UPI) — Who was the mysterious gunman who caused the U.S. military to bomb an abandoned Pakistani religious school on the Afghan border on Dec. 29?

U.S. military officials say the man was wearing the uniform of the Pakistani border scouts but was not part of a unit based at the outpost along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that was the scene of the incident.

It is also not clear whether he survived or was killed in the encounter. Pakistani newspapers reported Monday that seven people were killed in the clash. U.S. officials, however, say that no one was killed but that one U.S. soldier was injured by a gunshot wound to the head.

U.S. Central Command, which runs the war in Afghanistan, told United Press International that the soldier was recuperating and could be released from hospital on Friday.

But no one is saying anything about the mysterious instigator, whose actions have thrown into sharp relief the problems faced by the U.S. military on this remote and mountainous stretch of border in Pakistan's lawless North Western Frontier Province.

The fact that he was wearing a scout uniform does not say much. The scout uniform comprises a long, militia-colored shirt and baggy trousers of the same color. It also, incidentally, is the uniform for school children in the NWFP and the cloth can be bought from any shop in the area.

And even if he was, or is, a border scout, it does not say much. Border scouts are not part of the regular army. The scouts were created by the British in the early 20th century to appease the unruly tribal chieftains. In each tribal area, the scouts are recruited from the local tribe, given some training and rifles and are deployed their with the responsibility to maintain law and order, a job they did well.

But they are neither equipped nor perhaps motivated to engage Taliban or al Qaida fugitives. Most of them are related to the Afghan tribes living across the border and in the past they have sometimes sided with their Afghan brethren in Pakistan-Afghanistan border clashes.

If he were a scout, the incident will increase the pressure on Pakistan to bring regular army troops from Peshawar and neighboring Punjab to replace the scouts. If there is such a change, it could be an indication that he was a scout. If not, he is likely to turn out to be a local upset over Pakistan's support for America in the war against his fellow tribesmen.

As State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday, it is a complicated and difficult war that the U.S. and Pakistani troops are fighting along this border.

Ethnic and religious loyalties crisscross the border and it is difficult to force the local tribesmen to change their centuries old affinities to suit the requirements of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

It is these divided loyalties that often allow the Taliban and al Qaida fugitives to travel across the border, staying in tribal sanctuaries on both sides of the frontier.

That is why U.S. forces in Afghanistan have always reserved the right to cross the border into Pakistan in hot pursuit of terror suspects. But so far, perhaps to save Islamabad from potential embarrassment, no hot pursuits have actually taken place. Instead, U.S. forces have waited at the border for Pakistani troops to arrive, and take over the hunt for the fugitives. But that strategy has enabled fleeing fighters to escape to tribal sanctuaries.

Now that might be set to change. On Friday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan confirmed to United Press International that U.S. forces have a hot pursuit policy, something that U.S. officials have previously been reluctant to discuss.

"U.S. forces reserve the right to pursue enemy attackers across the border to evade retaliation," said Capt. Alayne Cramer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. forces at the Bagram Air Base near Kabul.

"Yes, we can enter Pakistan, that's the policy," said Cramer in a telephone interview from her base.

"But we have deliberately not crossed the border in hot pursuit, the closest we came was on the 29th of December," she added.

Nonetheless, the timing of the statement suggests that the U.S. military might be trying to send some kind of message.

In Islamabad, Foreign Office spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan told reporters his country was looking into the American military's statement, but had no immediate comment.

The State Department in Washington played down the incident, too. The department's spokesman, Richard Boucher, told a Thursday briefing that the terrorists operating along the border were a threat to Pakistan as well as to the United States. "So we've been working very closely with Pakistan … That includes cooperation and coordination of our efforts along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border."

He said Pakistani authorities were investigating the Dec. 29 incident but Washington had not received "any kind of protest" from Islamabad, despite media reports suggesting that Pakistani officials were angry at the behavior of U.S. forces.

In the area where the incident occurred, the Pakistani border scouts have a checkpoint set up about 300 meters (yards) to 500 meters (yards) on the Afghan side of the border. The incident occurred close to the locally established fence, and then in the area between that fence and the legitimate border.

U.S. military officials said that their forces discovered two rockets on the other side of the fence. The Pakistanis called in their ordnance personnel to disarm the two rockets. U.S. forces observed from the Afghan side of the fence.

While they were observing the operations, the U.S. forces were approached by an individual wearing the uniform of a Pakistan border scout but not part of the group disarming the rockets.

The U.S. forces told him to return to the other side of the fence. "He did so, moved about 15 meters from the soldiers, then turned and opened fire, striking a U.S. soldier. He then fled into an abandoned compound. Some U.S. forces pulled back to medically evacuate the injured soldier," said Cramer.

At that point, the Pakistani guards and remaining U.S. forces surrounded the building — an abandoned religious school — to prevent the suspect from escaping. The group continued to take fire from multiple locations inside.

"When it became evident that more Pakistani soldiers would not be able to arrive before dark, the U.S. commander on the ground made the call for air strikes. The Pakistani border guards who were surrounding the building backed off, and the 500lb bomb was dropped by a United States Marine Corps Harrier," Cramer said.

"Reports that the United States bombed a Pakistani border patrol were inaccurate. Reports that (U.S. forces were) on a routine patrol with the Pakistanis are inaccurate too," she added.

Boucher said U.S. and Pakistani officials were investigating the incident.

"This is something that we, and they are addressing. We do note statements by one Pakistani military spokesman who told the press that the bomb fell in Afghanistan," he said, adding: "It's something that we will deal with jointly."

There is no joint command and control between the Pakistan border scouts and U.S. forces.

The U.S. forces in the region communicate with the Pakistani military through the U.S. liaison officer in Islamabad, through the Pakistani liaison officer in Bagram, and through direct communication between the senior Pakistani officer of the border scouts, and the senior U.S. officer in the area.

The latter takes place via U.S.-provided cell phones. There is also a weekly face-to-face meeting between the Pakistani officer and the U.S. officer.

"Both the U.S. and Pakistan are making a determined effort to coordinate counter-terrorism efforts on the border. In this incident, for example, the suspect may have escaped without the concerted efforts of the Pakistani border guards on the scene," said Cramer.

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