By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States are discussing the creation of a joint military force to attack insurgent sanctuaries on both sides of the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border, a senior Afghan official said yesterday.
Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said he had proposed the idea and it was discussed last month at a meeting of military officers from the three countries that focused on the border problem.
"The terrorists have not recognized any boundaries," Wardak told reporters at the Pentagon, where he met with senior U.S. defense officials. "So to fight them, we have to eventually come up with some arrangement, together with our neighbor Pakistan."
Pakistan's government is considering the plan, Wardak said. "They say they are looking at it."
U.S. Predator drones have frequently struck suspected insurgent targets in Pakistan, and helicopter-borne American commandos have staged at least one ground attack inside the country, earlier this month. Cross-border action, notably the ground strike, has deeply angered the Pakistani public.
Pentagon officials said the idea of a joint task force was new. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have for months stated that the U.S. military is willing to conduct joint operations with Pakistani forces against insurgent havens in tribal areas in Pakistan. But there has been no talk of Pakistani forces entering Afghanistan, or of Afghan soldiers going into Pakistan.
Mullen, who was in Los Angeles yesterday, said he had not heard details of such a joint task force, but he called Wardak's effort welcome.
"I think anything that impacts better security on that border is a good thing," he said, according to the Reuters news agency. ". . . As in all these things, the devil will be in the details."
Mullen told Congress this month that he had "pressed hard" for Pakistani military leaders to allow U.S. forces to provide more help in countering the insurgency. Pakistan and Afghanistan "are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them," Mullen said. Last week, he visited Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, to further discuss the issue.
Pakistani military leaders have publicly resisted calls for joint operations, emphasizing the imperative to protect their country's sovereignty.
Wardak said cross-border cooperation is vital to counter a spreading insurgency in Afghanistan that he predicted this year would generate the worst violence since the war began in 2001.
"There is no doubt there has been a resurgence in numbers and quality and organization . . . of the enemy recently," Wardak said, estimating that more than 10,000 ideologically dedicated fighters in Afghanistan are being reinforced by growing numbers of "al-Qaeda elements" from Pakistan.
Violence doubled in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and is expected to reach its highest level this year, he said, as insurgents "are operating geographically in more provinces and have stretched the capability" of U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.
Meanwhile, more intensive combat operations have increased the number of Afghan civilian deaths, leading the U.N. Security Council on Monday to urge the NATO-led force to make efforts to minimize such casualties. The body also voted unanimously to extend the mission in Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press.
A massive bombing in Islamabad on Saturday was the latest sign of the intensifying insurgency in Pakistan. The Pentagon said yesterday that Air Force Maj. Rodolfo I. Rodriguez, 34, of El Paso, was killed in the bombing.