KABUL — As President Hamid Karzai shuffles his cabinet in response to national outrage over cross-border attacks coming from Pakistan, he has also quietly beefed up the Afghan military presence on the border in eastern Afghanistan, a move that could complicate the tense relations between the countries.
A full infantry brigade of Afghan National Army soldiers has been deployed to the border in Kunar province, and the border police there bolstered with more heavy weapons to respond to threats from Pakistan after months of cross-border shelling, said Idrees Mohmand, spokesman for the Eastern Zone Afghan Border Police.
“Our security forces are not just responsible for fighting insurgents,” he said. “Those neighbors or foreigners, anyone who attacks our soil, our checkpoints and our people, we’ll respond.”
The move was confirmed by Col. Numan Atifi, spokesman for the Afghan National Army’s eastern command, who said the command went from three brigades to four and sent the additional troops to Kunar.
Cross-border attacks, including heavy shelling of villages in recent months, have been going on for years, but have picked up in intensity this summer, killing and injuring dozens of people and displacing thousands. The attacks have inflamed Afghans, already pre-disposed to blaming Pakistan for many of the country’s ills, and led to the sacking of Afghanistan’s top two defense officials. After a vote of no-confidence from parliament for both the Defense and Interior ministers, Karzai is in the midst of a major overhaul of his cabinet.
Relations between the two countries are already fragile. Pakistan’s intelligence service is widely suspected of supporting insurgents and undermining the government, while Pakistan’s military says members of the Pakistani Taliban, who focus their attacks inside their own country take refuge in Afghanistan in the very provinces that are being shelled. Both countries dispute the Durand Line, the border haphazardly demarcated by the British more than a century ago, which also runs through those provinces.
By sending additional troops to the border, Karzai finally succumbed to heavy criticism for his failure to address Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan, said Wali Ullah Rahmani, executive director for Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.
“There’s huge political pressure on the president that he’s ignoring Pakistan’s attacks,” he said. “This is to put out a signal to Pakistan that if they don’t stop those attacks, the Afghan state will not have any option but to go into a direct war.”
Kunar Gov. Fazlullah Wahedi said Kabul has sent assistance for the thousands of villagers displaced by the shelling, but he said the attacks have not stopped. He said a young girl was injured and several head of livestock killed Friday by what he described as heavy machine-gun fire.
“Unfortunately, the bullets still come,” he said.
Wahedi still hopes for a diplomatic solution but, echoing the sentiments of many Afghans, he expressed frustration with the tripartite commission, which is made up of representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. to lessen border tensions.
“Unfortunately, until now I haven’t seen any action from them,” he said.
Haji Sakhi Mushwani, a member of parliament from Kunar, doubts the soldiers will actually be allowed to respond to Pakistani threats.
“It’s just for show,” he said.
Coalition officials would not comment directly on the Afghan military buildup or whether there was coordination with international forces. As far as any Coalition response to the rocket attacks, Regional Command-East spokesman Army Master Sgt. Tim Volkert pointed to the tripartite commission.
“Obviously Coalition and Afghan forces are talking daily and coordinating current and future operations,” he said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.