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Deaths in Pakistan Unmask Once Quiet U.S. Role

February 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Three U.S. soldiers were killed in Pakistan on Wednesday when a bomb hit the convoy they were riding in. The deaths raised new questions about U.S. involvement in the country.
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GWEN IFILL: Charred metal was all that was left after a convoy of U.S. and Pakistani troops ran into a roadside bomb near the Afghan border. Three Americans were killed and two were wounded.

FAZAL HAYAT, Pakistan (through translator): The situation was miserable there at the blast scene. Vehicles and the nearby houses were destroyed.

GWEN IFILL: The blast also killed three students at a nearby girls school and wounded more than 100 other Pakistanis. The American deaths were the first known to involve the U.S. military in Pakistan’s volatile tribal regions.

They also drew attention to the U.S. role in training Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps. The attack came in the Lower Dir, where pockets of Taliban militants remain, despite a government offensive last year.

A Taliban statement claimed those killed were private security contractors employed by the U.S. firm once known as Blackwater. But President Obama’s envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, said they were soldiers.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: But the facts are the facts. And when — and in the appropriate moment, after notification of next of kin and appropriate things, I’m sure their names and their exact rank will be publicly disclosed, as we always do. There’s nothing secret about their presence there.

GWEN IFILL: In spite of an influx of new aid from legislation sponsored by Senator John Kerry and Richard Lugar, U.S.-Pakistan relations have been tense.

Unmanned American drone aircraft have also recently stepped up attacks on Taliban leaders believed to be in Pakistan, including a 17-missile strike yesterday that was the largest yet. The Pakistani Taliban continues to deny that its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in similar drone attack last month.

GWEN IFILL: And, for more, we turn to Saima Mohsin, a senior anchor for Dawn TV, a 24-hour English-language news channel in Pakistan. She joins us from Islamabad.

Saima Mohsin, thank you for joining us.

What do we know about the bombing in Northwest Pakistan?

SAIMA MOHSIN, Dawn News: These were people from the United States training the paramilitary soldiers in the tribal areas. It’s been an ongoing process over the last few years here. They were on their way to a school that had just recently been renovated using U.S. aid money.

And they were invited as guests, as a vote of thanks, really. They were part of a convoy on their way when they were — they hit what we understand was a roadside bomb. Alongside the three U.S. military personnel who were killed were three schoolgirls and a Frontier Corps member, too.

And, also, more than 100 schoolgirls have been injured in this. We have been speaking to the hospitals there, and they say that most of these young girls came in with shrapnel wounds.

GWEN IFILL: The U.S. special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, said this operation wasn’t a secret one. Was it well known that they were all there?

SAIMA MOHSIN: Well, whether people knew that these were actual — this group was actually working and operating in this specific area is not known at the moment.

But, as I said, this has been an ongoing program. It’s been made public. People have talked about how United States personnel were going to come over to Pakistan to train the Frontier Corps personnel here. But we don’t know how much knowledge there was.

And this, at this point in time, is the big question. Who knows about which U.S. projects are being conducted in the tribal areas, be it in the NWFP, or FATA, on that border region next to Afghanistan. And is, of course, a huge concern to the United States, and, of course, Pakistani authorities, because there are, under the Kerry-Lugar bill and USAID projects, hundreds of projects that they’re planning on working on.

So, right now, what I’m being told is, they’re reviewing those and addressing what kind of security threats there are.

GWEN IFILL: The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for this, whatever that means. Do we know whether they were targeting the Frontier Corps, or were they targeting U.S. trainers?

SAIMA MOHSIN: Again, was this potluck? Were they targeting a convoy? We know that this was a publicized event, in terms of the fact that it was an inauguration of this school.

It was renovated. And, obviously, people in the area will have known that this was U.S. aid money that had renovated this school.

But, as to whether this was potluck or a targeted bombing, we’re not sure just yet. We’re waiting to hear. I have been speaking to U.S. Embassy personnel today as well. What we’re not sure of is whether this convoy happened to be passing and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or whether this IED device was planted there to target the nearby school.

GWEN IFILL: Saima, there’s quite some sensitivity about the presence of U.S. troops on the ground in Pakistan. So, what has been the reaction to this news?

SAIMA MOHSIN: Exactly. As you say, Gwen, there is hostility to the presence of be it U.S. aid workers or U.S. military personnel. We all know of that controversy of U.S. boots on the ground in the tribal areas last year.

But, at the moment, there’s all sorts of speculation. There’s been a huge scandal over the presence of Blackwater. There’s been issues as to what projects are being conducted by U.S. And, of course, we also know the controversy surrounding the Kerry-Lugar bill — so, a lot of hostility towards U.S., be they aid workers or military personnel operating in these areas.

GWEN IFILL: At the same time that this is happening, there have been conflicting reports about the death of a Taliban leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. Have we heard anything more about that, any confirmation?

SAIMA MOHSIN: Well, of course, Gwen, the Taliban is insistent that he is not dead. This was, of course, the leader that stepped into the shoes of Baitullah Mehsud, who was also killed in a — who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last August, in August 2009.

Hakimullah Mehsud had appeared in a video a few months ago, and the Taliban are denying that he’s been killed by this U.S. drone attack. However, they haven’t actually come forward with any kind of evidence to prove that he hasn’t been killed or seriously injured in this attack, and be that in the form of a video or of course a telephone call.

They usually, the Taliban, call local journalists who recognize the voice and can say, yes, this is Hakimullah Mehsud. Taliban are denying it. The — both U.S. and — and Pakistani intelligence officials are still trying to confirm that.

GWEN IFILL: There’s a lot more uncertain than certain there in Pakistan tonight.

Saima Mohsin from Dawn TV, thank you so much.

SAIMA MOHSIN: Thank you.