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Pak-Afghan border strife shows wider tensions

On a mountain trail toward the border with Pakistan, the explosions became louder, more constant and finally visible as puffs of smoke on distant peaks and rising from valleys. Families escaping the fusillade led donkeys strapped with mattresses and bags of clothes the other way, down the steep footpaths. They passed crippled trees, cratered houses and empty villages. Some of the villagers had shrapnel scars and described seeing relatives blown apart during a five-week artillery barrage from Pakistan.
“My grandson was nine years old,” said Juma Gul, a 60-year-old village elder in the Sirkanay district in eastern Afghanistan. “He and three other children were herding our goats when a rocket came. All four were killed. We could not find most of their bodies.” A loud crack sounded and rolled over the peaks. Gul swept his hand toward the mountain range rising toward Pakistan. “Still the rockets are landing here,” he said.
The shelling in Kunar province is taking place along one of the most strategically important fronts of the war a haven for hardcore insurgent groups fighting in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan has been so stung by insurgents’ recent cross-border attacks, they launched an offensive that also highlights NATO’s struggles to pacify the area and the lack of cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan against their common foes. NATO officials, in fact, say they were unaware of the extent of Pakistan’s artillery barrage across Afghanistan’s border until last week because Western troops have been pulled back from more remote outposts in Kunar.
Afghan government officials suspected that Pakistan had launched more than 761 rockets over the border into Kunar province since May and causing the deaths of at least 40 people and injuring 51. Pakistan has denied hitting Afghanistan intentionally, but acknowledged its military has been targeting terrorists to halt cross-border raids and that some rockets may have strayed off course.
Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai complained about the shelling to the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, US Gen David Petraeus, US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and President Asif Ali Zardari. Since those meetings, however, the assaults appear to have intensified in Kunar, about 205 kilometres east of Kabul. Coalition officials acknowledged that recent tensions along Kunar’s border has festered for weeks without an adequate response from the international alliance, in part because they consolidated troops from scattered valley and border outposts to centralised bases after coming under relentless attacks from militants.
The redeployment reflects a tactical shift from counterinsurgency operations emphasising development projects and regular contacts to win over local populations to counter-terrorism operations that emphasise killing militants.
Last week, US forces launched an offensive in Watapoor district in northeastern Kunar province, said US Army Lt Col Chad Carroll, a spokesman for the 1st Calvary Division at Regional Command East. Carroll said the objective of the operation was less to take strategic terrain than to target insurgents. “It’s more about enemy locations than it is about a spot on the ground,” he said. US soldiers have killed 80 to 100 militants in the district, Carroll said. But Taliban fighters still manage to stage attacks on both sides of Kunar’s border, Afghan officials say.
“There are only finite resources, manpower,” said British Maj Tim James, a NATO spokesman. The situation along Kunar’s border suggests the kind of future challenges Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO will face as US forces leave according to President Barack Obama’s schedule for the withdrawal of combat troops by 2014, when security will transition to Afghan control. During two days in Sirkanay district, Afghan border police were the most conspicuous forces on the roads, where they appeared to operate with a degree of autonomy from NATO. Only two other security units were seen: An armored NATO patrol and a newly established local police unit. Two new border police camps built next to NATO bases housed a well-maintained fleet of new Ford pick-up trucks and young policemen carrying AK-47s.
The border police’s movements, however, were severely limited by shelling from Pakistan and by Taliban hiding in mountain villages. “The withdrawal of NATO forces has had a direct effect on insecurity,” said Gen Aminullah Amerkhail, the eastern region commander of the Afghan border police, who added that his forces were not strong enough to assault known Taliban positions. “I will not go to those villages without air support from the Americans.” Amerkhail offered his resignation to the Afghan interior minister to protest NATO’s and Pakistan’s response to the problems along the border.
Pakistani officials, too, have complained about NATO inaction in southeast Kunar. Five times in June, militants based in Kunar and Nangarhar massed up to 300 fighters to stage cross-border attacks against Pakistani security checkpoints, killing 55 paramilitary soldiers and tribal police, Pakistani army officials said. Pakistani air and ground assaults drove the insurgents back. Pakistani army spokesman Maj Athar Abbas said that no rounds have been fired into Afghanistan intentionally, although it is possible that “a few” rounds may have accidentally fallen over the border. Abbas defended the assaults. “There is no effort to act against these strongholds or sanctuaries,” he said. “Many terrorist leaders are gathered there, and there is no pressure on them to leave.” Whatever Pakistan’s defensive rationale, Afghanistan views the border attacks as an infringement on its sovereignty. Afghan security officials have warned Pakistan that continued artillery fire into its territory would be met with a response that could include Afghan military action.



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