As US troops begin drawdown in Afghanistan, violence threatens Pakistan border
Pakistan has responded to US demands to rout militants from the mountainous border with Afghanistan. Now Pakistan's gains are now being undermined by Taliban attacks.
Ghakey Pass, Pakistan-Afghanistan border
Six months after NATO forces began a troop reduction from the Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan, a series of cross-border raids by Taliban from the Afghan territory threaten tentative Pakistan Army gains.
Earlier this month, two people were killed and five others injured following a mortar shelling and incursion that originated from Afghanistan. Also, dozens of militants, mainly Pakistani, entered Bajaur from Kunar in a predawn attack, killing one paramilitary and injuring another.
In Bajaur, where a Pakistan Army operation that began in 2009 has cleared most militants from the area, the raids are threatening a tentative peace, say residents and officials. As US troops undergo a phased withdrawal from the region ahead of 2014, analysts expect violence to once more grip the volatile border regions.
“The governments of the two countries must find a way to stop these incursions. Then the dead bodies will stop appearing,” says Shahabuddin Khan, leader of the Salarzai Lashkar, a group of minutemen, who have lost more than 140 of their elders at the hands of Taliban attacks.
At the Ghakey Pass, 7,000 ft. above sea-level, Taliban insurgents now use the lush green cover of the mountains to conduct “fire raids” every week – rapid firing from a distance designed to create panic and damage, without occupying new ground, says Subhadar Major Javaid of the Bajaur Levis, a paramilitary force under the command of Pakistan’s civil administration.
The Afghan border province of Kunar, offers thick forest providing cover for the invading militants, say soldiers. The closest Afghan town, Chagasrey, is some three hours up the road from the border. Meanwhile, just over the border on the Pakistan side, sits a village full of people who fled the Taliban. People who now find themselves on the receiving end of the cross-border raids.
The incursions into Pakistan have sparked a fresh war-of-words between the two neighbors, who have long distrusted each other.
No locals, aside from the border guards, have any business on the Afghan side of the border. So soldiers at the command post on the Pakistan side are instructed to push potential invaders back, which means some of the rockets they fire end up in Afghan territory.
A senior Pakistan Army commander who was not authorized to speak to the media told the Monitor that the invaders are well-trained, equipped, and at times can fire off 4,000 rounds of ammunition in a raid lasting one to two hours.
“Who is funding them? Where do they get their supplies from?” he asks.
It's a foreign hand, he says, repeating a claim often made by Pakistani officials when fighting Talban militants. The commander furnishes Afghan ID cards of captured Taliban fighters as proof of that the Afghan government supports them – though the cards’ authenticity could not be verified, nor are they necessarily concrete proof of Afghan government support.
Independent analysts say such claims of foreign funding, especially by the US or India, help spur on Pakistani troops in battles where they are pitted against co-religionists.
The militants also plant IEDs in the mountain villages and carry out suicide bomb attacks, causing villagers to be alert for any strangers or unfamiliar faces. One such incident stopped the convoy the Monitor was traveling on to the Ghakey Pass for around half an hour while Pakistani troops carried out a search operation.
On the Afghan side of the border, border patrol police wearing Western-style fatigues (as opposed to the shalwar kameez outfits of their Pakistani counterparts) invited the Monitor across the border for tea.
Unlike their Pakistani counterparts across the border, or the militants who periodically raid Pakistan, the Afghans do not possess heavy weapons such as mortars or rockets. Their access to basic supplies, like water, is also limited, and they are taken to their guard posts via helicopter, as the risk of ambush by Taliban on the road is too great.
A burnt-out pickup truck, destroyed by an IED not more than 100 meters within the Afghan border, bears witness to the risks of road travel for the Afghan forces.
“The Taliban call us 'kafirs' [unbelievers] on their FM radio station, and say we deserve death,” says Faiz Jan, a member of the Afghan Border Patrol police, underscoring that, while Pakistan and Afghanistan border police trade insults, they in fact share a common enemy. The radio broadcasts also declare the Pakistan Army as well as the leaders of the Tribal Laskhars apostates of Islam, according to Army officials and residents.
Their common enemy, according to the senior military official, is the Taliban, specifically infamous Maulvi Faqir Mohammad and his lieutenants Jaan Wali Sheena and Qari Saqib.
Faqir Mohammad, a senior Pakistani Taliban leader who briefly laid claim to the leadership, was reported killed in an airstrike in the Swat Valley in January 2010 but has since resurfaced to resume his terror campaign.
Officials say many of the same personnel who comprised the Swat Taliban fled across the border and are responsible for the current spate of raids.
Despite the raids, “the security situation is generally better these days. Two years ago, the government’s rule extended only as far as the political agent’s offices [the government of Pakistan's representative in the area],” says Muhammad Jamil, a senior government official who has spent some 25 years working in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.
The administration has been able to rebuild about 90 damaged schools that the Taliban had destroyed and have money from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – through the form of the FATA Sustainable Development Program Funds ($1 million was spent from July to December 2010). That money has been put to use effectively, says Usman Khalid Khan, another senior official in charge of development. But where the UAE advertises its infrastructure projects, schools, and clinics rebuilt with American money remain anonymous.
The Salarzai tribe has helped maintain some peace in Bajaur after major operations ceased some six months ago. Though he is perturbed by the cross-border violence, Pakistan should look within its own borders before blaming outsiders, Khan says. “Until religious extremism in this society is addressed, and politicians keep talking about deals with the Taliban, militancy will never fully disappear.”