Border Complicates War in Afghanistan
Friday, April 4, 2008
SPERA DISTRICT, Afghanistan -- As a cold darkness enveloped the tiny U.S. military camp just inside Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, word spread that Taliban fighters were on the move nearby, planning an attack.
Capt. Chris Hammonds expected it. In a mud-brick command center, the 32-year-old Army Ranger pivoted between a radio and a map, tracking reports of approaching Taliban. Several explosions soon ripped through the night as U.S. forces hit the suspected Taliban positions, including a cross-border guided-munitions strike on a compound about a mile inside Pakistan where senior associates of Siraj Haqqani -- considered one of the most dangerous Taliban commanders -- were thought to be meeting.
The U.S. military usually strikes across the border only when taking accurate fire from Pakistan, and standard practice calls for informing the Pakistani military about threats from its side. But Hammonds argued that the Pakistani military checkpoint was "under siege" from the Taliban and that Pakistani officers -- fearful of retaliation -- could tip off the insurgents.
The rare strike averted an imminent Taliban attack, Hammonds said, but across the border a starkly different account emerged. "Two women and two children got killed, so whatever was assessed was not correct," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani army. No Taliban were meeting in the family compound, he said. The Pakistani government issued a protest, and demonstrations erupted. "We were never informed about the strike," Abbas said. "This has serious implications for operations."
The March 12 incident highlights how, more than six years into the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, efforts to stabilize the country increasingly focus on the rugged frontier area straddling the border with Pakistan. Over the past 18 months, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have exploited peace deals by Pakistan's government to create an unprecedented haven in the region, U.S. officials said. From there, insurgents have escalated attacks in Pakistan and in eastern Afghanistan, leading the United States last year to double its troop presence along more than 600 miles of frontier.
Recent high-level talks among the three countries have called for more intelligence-sharing and coordinated operations along the border. Last Saturday, the first of six new border coordination centers -- with officers from the three nations -- opened at Torkham at the Khyber Pass, a "giant step" forward, said Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan.
But despite such efforts, front-line commanders such as Hammonds still grapple with key obstacles -- including unreliable Afghan and Pakistani soldiers, ambivalent villagers, and even disputes over where the true border lies. Commanders said they need at least 50 percent more U.S. troops and more reconstruction money. At current levels, they said, it will take at least five years to quell insurgent attacks, which increased nearly 40 percent in eastern Afghanistan last year, including a 22 percent rise in attacks along the border.
"This combat outpost will get attacked within the next week or so, with rockets or small-arms fire," said Hammonds, commander of Attack Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. "They can't stand that we are in this location."
The U.S. outpost -- which Hammonds and his forces set up a month ago in an insurgent safe house nicknamed the "Taliban Hotel" -- is part of an effort to stem the flow of fighters moving along routes from Pakistan's North and South Waziristan and other Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Collaboration is growing between Taliban commanders in Afghanistan such as Haqqani, who has tribal roots in Paktika province, and Pakistanis such as Baitullah Mehsud, a commander in South Waziristan who is reorganizing the Taliban with help from agents in Pakistan's intelligence service, according to U.S. military officials. Mehsud, the CIA has said, is responsible for the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December.
Taliban fighters and facilitators plan and resupply in Waziristan towns and then move across the border to launch attacks as far inside Afghanistan as Kabul. Overall attacks in eastern Paktika province rose about 30 percent last year, and have more than quadrupled since 2003, according to military data. Attacks by improvised explosive devices have risen tenfold since 2003, and suicide bombings, unseen before 2006, numbered seven last year.
"The threat of suicide-borne IEDs and IEDs are everywhere. It's far more significant than in the past," said Lt. Col. Michael Fenzel, commander of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Roadside bombs killed 10 of the battalion's 12 soldiers lost since May. The insurgents "have an IED division, a suicide-bombing division, and everything else supports those two things," he said.