Afghan-Pakistani Hostility Impedes U.S. Troops

In recent months, senior U.S. and Pakistani officials have stepped up efforts to tame the area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, used by the Taliban as a base to fire rockets and smuggle weapons.
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 5, 2009

ON THE AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN BORDER -- Lt. Gabe Lamois's mission sounded simple: Hike down the hill to the Pakistani Frontier Corps' border post, inform the commander there that U.S. and Afghan troops were going to be moving through the area at 3 a.m., and hike back up the hill.

Before Lamois had even finished speaking, the Pakistani officer was shaking his head. "We have a lot of enemies here," Lt. Ghulam Habib explained. His jittery troops might mistake the Americans for the Taliban and shoot them.

"How about 4 a.m.?" Lamois asked.

"Impossible; 7 a.m.," Habib countered.

The haggling turned to pleading before they settled on 5:30 a.m. Lamois walked off, and the Pakistani commander, eager to demonstrate that he was in charge of the area, trained his machine guns and mortar tubes on the U.S. campsite, about 500 yards away.

"It's a strange relationship, considering we're supposed to be allies," Lamois groused.

Senior U.S. and Pakistani officials have stepped up efforts in recent months to tame the chaotic border area, used by the Taliban as a base from which to fire rockets at U.S. positions in Afghanistan and smuggle fighters and weapons. But high-level talks have not led to cooperation on the ground, where U.S. troops are struggling to overcome decades of enmity between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"I am not sure why the [Pakistanis] are even here, except to stick a thumb in the eye of the Afghans," said Maj. Jason Dempsey, the No. 3 officer in the U.S. battalion on the border.

When 800 troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division moved into the area in February, it marked the first large-scale U.S. presence on the border in Konar province since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. The Americans had been in place only a few weeks when the local Pakistani commander summoned them and the senior Afghan commander in the area for an emergency meeting to discuss his fears that Afghan forces, backed by U.S. air power, were planning to attack Pakistani posts.

U.S. officials said the Pakistanis were angry that the Afghans were building a fort on the ridgeline between the two countries. Pakistan has long suspected that Afghanistan wants to grab Pashtun tribal lands on its side of the border. The meeting quickly became "very ugly and emotional," said Lt. Col. Mark O'Donnell, the senior U.S. officer in the area.

The Afghan commander said he needed the new border fort to hold off Taliban fighters who had fired on his troops from Pakistani army positions a few months earlier, killing four Afghan soldiers and wounding a U.S. adviser. The Pakistani colonel denied the firefight had happened, prompting the Afghan to pull out his cellphone, on which he said he had saved a video of the battle. Before he could play it, O'Donnell interceded.

To break through the suspicion, the 10th Mountain troops planned to hold a series of meetings with their Pakistani counterparts. But they quickly realized that the rugged terrain, poor Afghan roads and a shortage of U.S. helicopters made frequent visits impossible. "On the map, the border looks like it's only three or four kilometers away," Dempsey said. "The reality is that it is a major operation for us just to get to there."

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