The shocking attack by a strategic but nominal ally takes on new significance.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - A group of U.S. military officers and Afghan officials had just finished a five-hour meeting with their Pakistani hosts in a village schoolhouse settling a border dispute when they were ambushed -- by the Pakistanis.
A U.S. major was killed and three U.S. officers were wounded, along with their Afghan interpreter, in what fresh accounts from the Afghan and U.S. 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 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 violent interests.
Reconstruction of the attack, which several officials suggested was revenge for Afghan or Pakistani deaths at U.S. 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.
Details of the ambush indicate that Americans were keenly aware of Pakistan's sometimes duplicitous role long before Adm. Mike Mullen, 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 U.S. Embassy in Kabul this month.
Although both sides kept any deeper investigations under wraps, even at the time it was seen as a turning point by officials managing day-to-day relations with Pakistan.
Pakistan first attributed the attack to militants, then, when pressed to investigate, to a single rogue soldier from the Frontier Corps, the 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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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."
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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Afghan officials.