The nation's top military officer tried Friday to tamp down tensions over the escalating violence along Afghanistan's southern border, including this week's exchange of fire between U.S. and Pakistani forces.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Pakistan's military leaders reassured him in talks there last week that they have no intention of using force against U.S. troops along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
“Things are very tense and very dangerous in Pakistan,” Mullen told a Pentagon news conference. “But that doesn't mean the sky is falling, and it doesn't mean we should ever overreact to the hair-trigger tension we are all feeling. Now more than ever is a time for teamwork, for calm.”
Mullen's remarks came as Pakistan's president walked a fine line on the issue, saying Friday that he still looks positively on U.S. support to his nation despite the Thursday dustup on the border. But Asif Ali Zardari also warned the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday that Pakistan cannot allow its territory to “be violated by our friends.”
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Asked about the cross-border clash as he appeared alongside Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after an hourlong meeting with other key foreign ministers, Zardari said that “whenever we meet with our friends, we discuss all the weaknesses and definitely try to make them into our strengths.”
The five-minute firefight Thursday underscores the murky nature of the relations between the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan and how they interact along what is a long, mountainous, ungoverned border riddled with safe havens for Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents.
Pakistan has become increasingly vocal in its anger over U.S. operations across the border, including a spate of missile and ground attacks aimed at insurgents in the tribal areas. U.S. military commanders complain that Islamabad has been doing too little to prevent the Taliban and other militant groups from recruiting, training and resupplying in the border region.
Mullen acknowledged that the havens have gotten safer this year and the insurgency more sophisticated. And he is reviewing the military's strategy in Afghanistan insisting that it also focus more broadly on Pakistan and even India, because the three are interwoven and must be dealt with in a comprehensive way.
Thursday's clash began when Pakistanis fired on or sent flares at two U.S. reconnaissance helicopters operating near the border. The Pakistanis said the choppers, which were escorting Afghan and U.S. troops, had crossed into the tribal Pakistani areas, but Pentagon officials deny that.
In response, officials have said that U.S. ground forces fired warning shots at the Pakistanis, who returned fire. Pressed on whether Pakistan has explained why its troops fired on an allied aircraft, Mullen said he has been assured by its senior military leaders that “there is certainly no intent or plan to fire on (U.S.) forces.”
Meanwhile in New York, the top diplomats of 11 countries — Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey, the United States and United Arab Emirates — along with senior representatives of the European Union and United Nations met with Zardari to express support for his government and its fight against militants.