By Zia Ur Rehman
July 13-19, 2012
On June 24, scores of militants based in Afghanistan’s Kunar province crossed the border into Upper Dir and attacked a group of Pakistani soldiers on patrol. Three days later, they released a video showing severed heads of 17 of them.
Recent attacks on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, allegedly carried out jointly by Pakistani militants and Afghan Taliban, have escalated tensions between Islamabad and Kabul once again. Pakistan and Afghanistan usually blame each other for Taliban violence on either side of their border.
The phenomenon of cross-border attacks on Pakistani troops and posts by Afghanistan-based militants has emerged as a major concern for Islamabad in the last two years. The attacks increase Pakistan’s problems in an already complex security landscape. These incursions started at a time when the US and NATO were gradually withdrawing their troops and handing over the security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) under the Afghan security transition plan, amid peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.
The Upper Dir district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has been the target of several such cross-border attacks. Afghan-based militants have also carried out cross-border attacks in Lower Dir district, and the Bajaur, Mohmand and Kurram tribal agencies.
The June 24 raid was the most recent, and perhaps the most brazen, of such attacks. In a strong reaction, Pakistani authorities asked Afghanistan to take appropriate measures to tighten its control of border areas and stop the militants from carrying out cross-border attacks.
Army chief General Asfhaq Parvez Kiani was reported to have asked International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander General John Allen in a recent meeting to act against terrorists who were launching attacks on Pakistan from the Afghanistan soil.
Security experts and government officials agree cross-border attacks are carried out in Dir region by Pakistani militants, especially accomplices of Maulana Fazlullah, head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Swat region, with the help of Afghan militants. News reports claimed that Fazlullah and his high-profile commanders had fled to the Nuristan and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan after the military operation in Swat in 2009. Many see the recent cross-border attacks as attempts by Fazlullah and his men to return and avenge their defeat.
“Fazlullah is leading the attacks from Afghanistan’s border provinces and is in touch with fighters in Malakand division,” Sirajuddin, the spokesman for TTP’s Malakand chapter, told local reporters by phone. “We move across the porous border regularly,” he added. This acknowledgment gives credence to Islamabad’s claims that the TTP has found safe havens in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces bordering Pakistan.
But the Afghan Taliban have repeatedly denied any involvement in attacks in Pakistani territory. “The Afghan Taliban insurgents limit their operations to Afghanistan and never launched attacks in Pakistan or any other country,” Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the Afghan media.
But tribal sources in both Kabul and Islamabad say Qari Ziaur Rehman, a key commander of Al Qaeda who hails from Kunar, is helping the Pakistani militants. Rehman operates in Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan’s Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions.
Security in the bordering areas remained volatile in 2011, with 69 reported clashes and cross-border attacks took 225 lives, according to Pakistan Security Report 2011, published by Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based think tank. Most of the casualties were reported in militant attacks. According to the report, 57 military personnel and 154 civilians were killed in border clashes in that period.
The Afghan authorities have also expressed concerns about the infiltration of militants from Pakistan’s Dir and Chitral areas into Nuristan and Kunar. Some Afghan government officials allege that Pakistani troops have been firing missiles into border districts in eastern Kunar for the last two months, displacing hundreds of families, igniting forest fires and causing casualties. Afghanistan also warned Pakistan it would report the shelling of the border villages to the UN Security Council. The National Directorate of Security, the premier Afghan intelligence agency, had warned of “rapid and joint response” by the people and government of Afghanistan to cross-border attacks.
Afghan analysts think Pakistan is trying to exert its influence in the bordering areas of Afghanistan by firing missile to facilitate insurgent activities on Afghan territory. “The Pakistani government is trying to create disharmony so that it could easily interfere in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs after the withdrawal of coalition troops in 2014,” Mohammad Hashim Qayam, a Kabul-based analyst, told Pajhwok News Agency. He said Pakistan wanted to strengthen its role in Afghanistan and encourage extremist groups to be active in the country.
“There are all shades of militants including Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in Nuristan and some parts of Kunar provinces,” opined Jan Assakzai, an analyst who looks at militancy in the region. “The Afghan government does not have the resources to clear the area of militancy, and NATO is not helping the local Afghan deployment. My suspicion is as we get closer to the 2014 deadline of withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, more regions could fall into Taliban hands or switch sides undermining Pakistan’s security.”
Some analysts believe violence on both sides of the border is a new Al Qaeda strategy to hurt ties between the two countries and increase mutual mistrust.
“Instead of blaming each other, Islamabad and Kabul governments should deal collectively with the issue of cross-border militancy,” said one security expert who works with a think-tank. “An alliance of Al Qaeda leaders, the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and and other militant organizations is behind this violence.”
It is not likely that the Taliban will regain control of the Dir region in near future, but they are expected to continue with their hit-and-run tactics – an ideal guerrilla-warfare approach in the rugged terrain. The areas under their influence will continue to be used not only for cross-border raids, but also as sanctuaries for Taliban fleeing military operations.
The writer is a journalist and researcher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.