An American major was killed and three American officers were wounded, along with their Afghan interpreter, in what fresh accounts from the Afghan and American officers who were there reveal was a complex, calculated assault by a nominal ally. The Pakistanis opened fire on the Americans, who returned fire before escaping in a blood-soaked Black Hawk helicopter.
The attack, in Teri Mangal on May 14, 2007, was kept quiet by Washington, which for much of a decade has seemed to play down or ignore signals that Pakistan would pursue its own interests, or even sometimes behave as an enemy.
The reconstruction of the attack, which several officials suggested was revenge for Afghan or Pakistani deaths at American hands, takes on new relevance given the worsening rupture in relations between Washington and Islamabad, which has often been restrained by Pakistan’s strategic importance.
The details of the ambush indicate that Americans were keenly aware of Pakistan’s sometimes duplicitous role long before Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate last week that Pakistan’s intelligence service was undermining efforts in Afghanistan and had supported insurgents who attacked the American Embassy in Kabul this month.
Though both sides kept any deeper investigations of the ambush under wraps, even at the time it was seen as a turning point by officials managing day-to-day relations with Pakistan.
Pakistani officials first attributed the attack to militants, then, when pressed to investigate, to a single rogue soldier from the Frontier Corps, the poorly controlled tribal militia that guards the border region. To this day, none of the governments have publicly clarified what happened, hoping to limit damage to relations. Both the American and Pakistani military investigations remain classified.
“The official line covered over the details in the interests of keeping the relationship with Pakistan intact,” said a former United Nations official who served in eastern Afghanistan and was briefed on the events immediately after they occurred.
“At that time in May 2007, you had a lot of analysis pointing to the role of Pakistan in destabilizing that part of Afghanistan, and here you had a case in point, and for whatever reason it was glossed over,” he said. The official did not want to be named for fear of alienating the Pakistanis, with whom he must still work.
Exactly why the Pakistanis might have chosen Teri Mangal to make a stand, and at what level the decision was made, remain unclear. Requests to the Pakistani military for information and interviews for this article were not answered. One Pakistani official who was present at the meeting indicated that the issue was too sensitive to be discussed with a journalist. Brig. Gen. Martin Schweitzer, the American commander in eastern Afghanistan at the time, whose troops were involved, also declined to be interviewed.
At first, the meeting to resolve the border dispute seemed a success. Despite some tense moments, the delegations ate lunch together, exchanged phone numbers and made plans to meet again. Then, as the Americans and Afghans prepared to leave, the Pakistanis opened fire without warning. The assault involved multiple gunmen, Pakistani intelligence agents and military officers, and an attempt to kidnap or draw away the senior American and Afghan officials.
American officials familiar with Pakistan say that the attack fit a pattern. The Pakistanis often seemed to retaliate for losses they had suffered in an accidental attack by United States forces with a deliberate assault on American troops, most probably to maintain morale among their own troops or to make a point to the Americans that they could not be pushed around, said a former American military officer who served in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Looking back, there were always these attacks that could possibly be attributed to deliberate retaliation,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his job does not permit him to talk to journalists. Pakistani forces had suffered losses before the May 14 attack, he added.
As with so many problems with Pakistan, the case was left to fester. It has since become an enduring emblem of the distrust that has poisoned relations but that is bared only at critical junctures, like Teri Mangal, or the foray by American commandos into Pakistan in May to kill Osama bin Laden, an operation deliberately kept secret from Pakistani officials.
Ruhullah Khapalwak contributed reporting.
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