Three U.S. special operations forces helping train Pakistan's embattled paramilitary corps were killed today when their vehicle was destroyed by a remote control bomb, the deadliest ever attack on Americans in Pakistan.
More than 20 special operations forces are in Pakistan to train the Frontier Corps, the historically under-equipped and ill-trained force fighting the Taliban in Pakistan's volatile northwest. The training program has been acknowledged by the Pakistani military but is rarely publicized because of fears it will stoke rising anti-American sentiment.
The attack appears to have specifically targeted the vehicle carrying the Americans, according to a journalist travelling in the convoy whose vehicle was damaged but survived the explosion. The bomb exploded underneath the third car after two of the cars had already travelled over the same spot, the journalist, Amjad Ali Shah, told ABC News.
That would suggest a high level of sophistication by the Pakistani Taliban, which have vowed revenge for repeated CIA drone strikes against its leadership and who today took responsibility for the bombing.
The soldiers were the first U.S. military personnel killed in Pakistan since the Marriott hotel bombing in August 2008, which killed two troops. Today's casualties appear to be the first who were actually targeted in Pakistan.
The bomb exploded just before 11:00 a.m. Pakistan time, according to the Pakistani military, as the group of Pakistani security officials, journalists, and the American trainers were on their way to a girls' school that had been damaged by the Taliban and then rebuilt with the help of American development money.
The bomb injured 70, including two additional American trainers and dozens of girls attending a school that was destroyed in the attack. That school is separate from the school to which the convoy was driving. Three schoolgirls and one Pakistani paramilitary soldier also died in the explosion.
The attack occurred in Lower Dir, an area adjacent to both Afghanistan and Pakistan's Swat, a valley where the Taliban used to terrorize the population and bomb girls' schools until the Pakistani military conducted a major operation in spring 2009.
Today the Pakistani military claims the area is clear of militants, but residents say Taliban fighters still operate in pockets and can lay roadside bombs relatively easily.
The Frontier Corps historically has defended Pakistan's tribal areas, the semiautonomous region along the Afghan border. In recent years Taliban and al Qaeda militants have carved safe havens out of the tribal areas, and the Frontier Corps has been asked to step up its activities against militants, a task for which they were not historically equipped.
The U.S. has put pressure on the Pakistani military to be more aggressive against the Taliban along its western border, and the training program is part of an increased effort by the United States and the Pakistani military to increase the Frontier Corps' capacity.
American trainers help the paramilitary forces with intelligence gathering and technical knowledge and equipment, according to Gen. Tariq Khan, the inspector general of the Frontier Corps.
"You can't induct equipment unless you bring in training related to its technology, support, and maintenance," Khan told ABC News shortly after the program began in late 2008.
The government shies away from discussing the training program publicly. Today on Pakistani television, Pakistani administration officials were forced to defend their relationship with the United States.