Officials on both sides say the attacks portend the dangers of a U.S. military drawdown, particularly along a poorly secured border where militant groups are cooperating to expand their territories.
On Monday, hundreds of Afghans took to the streets to protest Pakistan’s cross-border shelling, with peaceful demonstrations in Lashkar Gah in the south and Jalalabad in the east.
About 700 people, including students and religious leaders, turned out in Lashkar Gah, chanting “down with Pakistan” and offering condolences to the families of those who have died. The provincial governor planned to donate one month’s salary to the residents displaced by the artillery, and local businessmen pledged money as well, said a provincial spokesman, Dawood Ahmadi.
The border section along northeastern Konar and Nangahar provinces has long been among Afghanistan’s least-patrolled, making it fertile ground for insurgents, and U.S. military officials said they do not have a clear understanding of the violence or the motives behind it. Some Western officials said Afghanistan and Pakistan may be stoking the tensions in a bid to wrest concessions from U.S. benefactors — or to exert power over the long-disputed border and beyond.
Pakistani, Afghan and U.S. military representatives met Thursday in Pakistan, the latest in a series of high-level discussions on the topic, and officials on all sides said they were hopeful that a recent improvement in ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan would keep the situation from escalating. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his troops would not respond to the shelling from Pakistan, which Islamabad says has been minimal and aimed only at fleeing militants.
But strains persist. Afghan officials said shelling from Pakistan continued even after its army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, assured the Afghan ambassador in a meeting last week that it would stop. Members of the Afghan parliament called on Karzai to break with Islamabad over the shelling.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani telephoned Karzai on Wednesday to insist that Pakistan has “shown utmost restraint” and to push for the situation “to be defused quickly,” according to a government statement. Dawn, a top Pakistani newspaper, accused Afghanistan of not acting against “a new theatre of war that is spiralling out of control.”
Claims and counterclaims
The border tensions come as long-fraught relations between the two countries had appeared to be warming. The strains also coincide with a new round of talks between U.S. officials and an insurgent official said to be close to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. Afghans contend that Pakistan seeks to undermine the talks because it wants to control them. Pakistan denies the assertion.