By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 12, 2007
KABUL, Jan. 11 -- NATO and Afghan military forces killed between 80 and 150 insurgents in battles near the Pakistani border Wednesday night after the fighters crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan, NATO and Afghan officials said Thursday.
The confrontation in Paktika province, described as the largest battle in Afghanistan since September, came as American and U.N. officials step up pressure on both Pakistani and Afghan leaders to stop their public bickering and do more to gain control of their respective border areas, where Islamic insurgents have been operating for months.
NATO officials said their forces had observed two large groups of insurgents infiltrating from Pakistan, tracked them and then attacked them by ground and air. According to NATO's initial count, as many as 150 insurgents were killed, but Afghan defense officials said they believed the toll was about 80. No Afghan or NATO casualties were reported.
There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy in the figures. Because the battle area was so remote, it was not possible for journalists to gather information directly.
Pakistan's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, said soldiers from his country's army fired artillery at trucks being driven by the fighters on the Pakistani side of the border, the Associated Press reported.
The AP also quoted a man claiming to speak for the Taliban, Muhammad Hanif, as saying in a text message that NATO's casualty figure was "a complete lie."
The battle highlighted the continuing military importance of the extremely porous and poorly guarded border, especially the sections that include a string of semiautonomous tribal districts in Pakistan. Afghan officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan of allowing Islamic insurgents to find safe haven there, while Pakistan has said it is doing everything possible to rein them in.
In the past week, controversy has mounted over a proposal by Pakistan to place land mines and barbed-wire fencing along stretches of the border, including the area where NATO said the groups of insurgents slipped across this week. Critics here say the plan could harm civilians and divide tribes that live on both sides.
Richard A. Boucher, the senior State Department official for South and Central Asia, told journalists in Kabul on Thursday that both Afghanistan and Pakistan needed to do more to bring security and effective government to the border areas. He is to hold talks with officials from the two countries during a visit to the region this week.
"It is clear to me that none of us will be safe unless we do deal with both sides of the border," Boucher said. He said that he believed Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorism and the Taliban insurgency was "real" but that the Bush administration wanted to help make it "more effective."
Boucher did not directly criticize the border mining plan but said it was generating "serious discussion" in Pakistan. A senior U.N. representative to Afghanistan said this week that the United Nations "regretted" Pakistan's move and viewed land mines as a "very serious threat to human security."
The official, Christopher Alexander, strongly chided Pakistan for inflammatory rhetoric and misleading statements that he said had not helped ease tensions with Afghanistan. He cited recent assertions by Pakistani officials that key Taliban leaders had never been in Pakistan and that the Taliban insurgency was part of a domestic uprising inside Afghanistan by the Pashtun ethnic group.
"The truth is that these networks operate in both countries, and their leaders spend time in both countries," Alexander said. "More law enforcement and military action are needed" in both places, he added, calling on the leaders of the two countries to "focus more on facts and less on rhetorical point-scoring."
In recent months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, have engaged in an escalating war of words. Karzai accuses Pakistan of allowing Islamic extremists to seek safe haven inside its borders, while Musharraf criticizes the Kabul government as weak and unable to quash a domestic rebellion.
Boucher, asked which of the two governments he believed, said he did not want to choose sides but cited similar "challenges" in both countries. "The issue on both sides is to extend the authority and benefits of government to people right up to the edges of the frontier," he said.
He suggested that the two governments have cooperated far more "than one would think from the rhetoric." Pakistan and Afghanistan share military intelligence, and their senior security officials have met regularly with NATO alliance leaders as part of a three-way commission, which met again Thursday.
A sustained offensive by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan caused about 4,000 violent deaths in 2006. The revived Islamic militia, which ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, has launched hundreds of attacks and dozens of deadly suicide bombings.