Cultivating coordination on the Afghan-Pakistan border
By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 29, 2013
FORWARD OPERATING BASE TORKHAM, Afghanistan — Nestled in the rocky hills of eastern Afghanistan, now green from the spring rains, this small forward operating base is the scene of an odd mix of barbecues, movie nights, and international border crises.
Just down the road from the busiest border crossing in Afghanistan, FOB Torkham hosts one of two Joint Border Coordination Centers, each housing a few dozen soldiers and police officers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO countries.
Amid the constant political posturing, violent raids, and smuggling that has dogged Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan for decades, it is up to this handful of officers there to defuse potential crises before they spin out of control.
About 30 American soldiers who represent NATO at the center live with their Afghan and Pakistan counterparts in an area separated from the rest of the American base. The threat posed by insider attacks by Afghans on coalition troops means the two sides rarely spend time together without armed guards, and living areas on shared bases are typically separated by high walls and razor wire.
But at the coordination center, which opened its doors in 2008, living together is as important to solving border issues as working together, said U.S. Army Col. Abraham Conn, who leads the Khyber JBCC at Torkham.
“We live, eat, sleep, crap, work out, have fun, play checkers, chess, volleyball… we do all this together,” he said. “There are differences, but for the most part we care about each other here.”
One minute it’s barbecues and movie nights, and the next moment there could be an international crisis involving one of the world’s most disputed borders. While games and border issues may seem unconnected, Conn says they are vital to building personal rapport.
“It took about a month for these guys to even talk to me,” he said. “It’s about building relationships and that doesn’t come instantly.”
He said the relationships that have developed at the center often allow officers to resolve small border disputes that previously might have snowballed into larger problems.
Despite a trilateral agreement signed in November by the two countries and NATO that calls for more border cooperation, Afghanistan doesn’t officially recognize the frontier line. Add in American drone strikes in Pakistan and the border remains one of the hottest spots in the ongoing war.
Conn admits getting little sleep lately as Afghan and Pakistani police have clashed over a disputed border gate, including an incident in which one Afghan officer died.
“We’re walking on eggshells here, especially with this whole gate issue,” Conn said.
The representatives who man the center are largely mid-level officers and senior non-commissioned officers. They say the personal relationships help keep lower level misunderstandings or controversies from boiling over.
“Conversations do get heated, but at the end of shift we all shake hands, drink tea, and talk about something besides work,” said U.S. Army Master Sgt. Jim Morandi, who helps oversee the center’s “watch floor” where officers work together amid an array of computers and big screen TVs displaying maps and other intelligence.
The confluence of history is felt strongly in the Khyber Pass area, where armies from Alexander the Great once passed and where dilapidated forts left over from the British colonial era still stand guard. At the JBCC, that history adds another dimension as Afghan and Pakistani officers who experienced the jihad against the Soviets and the subsequent civil war work alongside Florida National Guard soldiers like Conn, who works for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and Morandi, who owns a plumbing supply company.
“Neither side forgets what the other side did to them last week or two hundred years ago, but I think this kind of environment helps them look past that,” said Morandi. “Does it help in Islamabad or Kabul? Probably not. But it works here.”
A trust deficit
It is far from clear whether the two countries can avoid a collision course without NATO stepping in, and the border coordination centers have yet to prove that they can help solve issues beyond the tactical level, especially when the central governments seem intent on escalating tensions.
“There is a trust deficit over the decades and years between Afghanistan and Pakistan that still exists, and we are trying to bring the two parties together,” said Col. Richard Alonso Holtorf, who leads a similar joint border coordination center near Spin Boldak in southern Afghanistan. “Their forces sometimes work against each other. There is still a level of mistrust, so that’s something we work through every day.”
Each country has accused the other of harboring militants, and even the exact location of the border remains in dispute.
Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, says he is “deeply pessimistic” about the security situation in Afghanistan and says joint border work is unlikely to help solve the roots of the conflict.
“It does not override deeper pathologies: Antipathy between Afghans and Pakistanis, the ideological drive of the Taliban, and the still weak government in Kabul,” he said.
Indeed, the success often cited by officers at the coordination centers seems to have been achieved despite the political tensions, rather than because of any change in attitudes.
“They have not embraced the fact that they face a mutual problem,” Alonso Holtorf said of Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Both countries would benefit greatly from the stability that increased cooperation would bring. They don’t realize the net benefit of two people working together, and that’s the bridge we’re trying to cross.”
Pakistani Lt. Col. Gul Hassan, who works at the Khyber JBCC, insisted his country has a vested interest in ending violence in Afghanistan.
“Without peace in Afghanistan, it directly affects Pakistan,” he said. “And everyone is working to make peace in Afghanistan.”
An uncertain future
The increased tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan come as NATO’s international coalition looks to reduce its presence, making the future of trilateral border coordination uncertain.
Both Afghan and Pakistan officers, however, expressed interest in keeping the installations operating.
“Even after NATO and ISAF leaves, these centers have their value,” said Hassan. “Even after 2014 these two centers should remain. They are very useful for border cooperation.”
Afghan National Army Lt. Col. Hazarat Nabi also described optimism about border cooperation – as well as a diplomatic view of the countries’ relations. “As Afghans we always want to have good relations with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” he said. “Even if this center closed, we would still work together for the future.”
American officials say progress is being made — Conn says border incidents in his area of responsibility are down by more than 50 percent from last year — but they also concede that the border is one area where NATO will likely have an enduring presence.
“The leadership provided by ISAF is very appreciated, but ISAF is leaving the theater,” Alonso Holtorf said. “I think now people are just starting to accept that as the day gets closer.”
Back near the Khyber Pass, Morandi said he believes that the Afghan and Pakistani officials can carry out the same work without ISAF leadership. “It will still be man to man, officer to officer, and that doesn’t have to change when we’re not here,” he said.
Meanwhile, Conn says he will continue to build relationships, even if it means hosting more barbecues.
“Sometimes there is a little mistrust, sometimes even a little animosity, but I don’t think anybody is ready to throw in the towel,” he said. “It’s amazing what a little bit of lunch can do.”