FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, AFGHANISTAN — One Tuesday evening last month, while patrolling along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, American soldiers came under a flurry of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades from the vicinity of a Pakistani military checkpoint known as Border Post 4.
The soldiers with the 3rd platoon launched a warning flare, called a “red star cluster,” to identify themselves. For a moment, according to a U.S. military summary of the incident, the firing stopped; then it resumed. The U.S. soldiers shot back with their rifles and handheld 60mm mortars — a rare direct-fire engagement with a Pakistani border post.
But as with much concerning Pakistan’s role in the Afghan war, this firefight has left American soldiers at a loss for a clear explanation. It could have been a case of Pakistani soldiers firing on U.S. troops to provide cover for insurgents maneuvering nearby, as some U.S. soldiers initially concluded. Or, insurgents could have been firing from a checkpoint that had already been abandoned by Pakistani troops.
The murky episode is one small illustration of the challenge in defining Pakistan’s involvement with insurgents who are fighting U.S. troops. The longer the Afghan war drags on, the more suspicion mounts that Pakistan’s security services provide a wide range of support for the Taliban and its allies. And with this suspicion, Afghan and American relations with Pakistan continue to deteriorate.
There is no shortage of accusations flying across the border. On the Afghan side, officials regularly accuse Pakistan’s military and intelligence services of using the Taliban to fight a proxy war against the United States, their nominal ally. Afghan leaders say Pakistan’s spies meet with the Taliban leadership, and fund and equip them for the fight in Afghanistan.
With equal conviction, Pakistani officials deny harboring or helping the insurgency in any way and blame U.S. and Afghan officials for allowing insurgent sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s president vowed this month to “eradicate” the Haqqani network, the insurgent group that the U.S. military’s highest-ranking officer this year called a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
On the border, the situation does not become much clearer. U.S. soldiers in Paktika, a province the size of New Jersey that is across from the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, see the role of Pakistan as a somewhat abstract question — they do not let it distract them from the daily requirements of fighting the insurgency.
Several U.S. soldiers here said they believed it was likely that Pakistan’s government was complicit with the Taliban and Haqqani fighters in the province but that they could not prove that connection. Accusing Pakistan of helping to kill U.S. troops — while at the same time receiving billions in American aid — is a politically touchy issue that many U.S. soldiers would rather avoid.
“There’s a lot of smoke. Is there fire?” said one U.S. military officer about possible Pakistani complicity with the insurgents. “It’s a very strong circumstantial argument at this point.”