Gates Visits Kabul, Cites Rise in Cross-Border Attacks

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

KABUL, Jan. 16 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, on his first visit to Afghanistan, said Tuesday that there had been a "significant increase" in cross-border attacks from Pakistan, adding his voice to a chorus of U.S. and international officials who have begun taking Pakistan to task for harboring Islamic insurgents.

Gates praised Pakistan as a "strong American ally in the war on terror," but he also said there was a "problem" in Pakistan's border areas and that "al-Qaeda networks are operating on the Pakistan side." He said that the United States needed to "work with Pakistan" to reduce the violence and attacks emanating from within its borders.

Speaking at a news conference here with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Gates was the latest of several U.S. and U.N. officials to publicly raise the border issue after several years of international silence because of Pakistan's cooperation in the hunt for al-Qaeda fugitives.

U.S. military officials cited year-end statistics showing a sharp increase in insurgent attacks here, especially by the revived Taliban militia, and predicted a strong new surge of violence in the spring.

Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told journalists traveling with Gates that the number of suicide attacks had increased from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006, remotely detonated bombings more than doubled from 783 to 1,677, and armed attacks nearly tripled from 1,558 to 4,542.

The violence led to more than 4,000 deaths in Afghanistan last year. It was by far the bloodiest year in the country since 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion drove the Taliban from power.

Gates, who was sworn in last month as defense secretary, said he would be "strongly inclined" to recommend a troop increase if commanders believe it is needed, the Associated Press reported. Eikenberry said he wanted to extend the combat tours of 1,200 soldiers in Afghanistan to help stem the rising violence, the news service reported. There are currently 24,000 American troops here, 11,000 of them operating under command of the NATO alliance and the rest under U.S. command.

The senior U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Col. Thomas Collins, said that enemy forces were taking advantage of a peace pact reached in September between Pakistan's government and tribal leaders near the Afghan border. The government had promised the agreement would curb extremist activity and cross-border movements into Pakistan.

Other U.S. military officials said Pakistani forces had been turning a blind eye to insurgent border crossings despite official policies against such activities. In the past, U.S. officials have been reluctant to criticize Pakistan, whose military leaders are under pressure from domestic Islamic and tribal groups that sympathize with the Taliban.

In the past few days, several incidents have appeared to bolster the new international concern about Pakistan's role in violence.

Last Wednesday, officials said, two groups of insurgents were tracked crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan, where they were attacked by U.S. and Afghan forces. At least 30 insurgents were killed. Taliban officials reportedly called on villagers in the Pakistani tribal areas to hold special funerals for them as Islamic martyrs.

On Tuesday, Afghan police said they caught a suicide bomber attempting to blow up a foreign military compound in Kabul. They said he was from North Waziristan, the Pakistani border region where officials made the truce with local officials in September.

Pakistani officials deny they are abetting Islamic terrorists or cross-border attacks. On Tuesday, the Pakistani army spokesman reported that military forces had attacked an al-Qaeda training camp in North Waziristan, killing 20 to 30 suspected insurgent fighters.

Gates's visit was the third by a senior U.S. official in a week, a flurry of attention that has perplexed many Afghans. Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for the region, visited Kabul en route to Islamabad, Pakistan, earlier this week. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a likely presidential candidate in 2008, also visited both capitals.

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