U.S. seeking more aggressive stance from Pakistan on insurgents
September 1, 2008
KHOST, Afghanistan — On a Thursday night in late August, a U.S. Army captain at a small base a few miles from the Pakistani border took a call from an officer on the other side.
A group of insurgents had crossed into Afghanistan and was about to fire rockets at the U.S. base, the Pakistani officer said, according to a U.S. military account of the incident. The Pakistani told the American where to aim his mortars, and the Americans quickly opened fire.
A few minutes later, the Pakistani officer called again to request another round of mortars, saying he was receiving reports of wounded insurgents and promising to guard the passes the fighters might use if they tried to flee back to Pakistan. The American launched a second volley, and U.S. scouts watched as a series of secondary explosions rose from the site of the suspected rockets, officers say.
It was just one incident in what has been a troubling summer in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. and Afghan troops have come under escalating attacks from insurgents based in Pakistan’s volatile tribal belt across the border. But in a handful of episodes like the one in Paktika province on Aug. 21, U.S. officers have begun to trace the outlines of what they see as a hopeful, if highly tenuous, trend.
"We’re seeing vignettes of effort where (Pakistani units) are alerting us to miscreant terrorist activities … and are supporting our efforts in defeating those threats," Col. Pete Johnson, a U.S. task force commander in eastern Afghanistan, said last weekend. "In March, when I got here, I did not necessarily see that."
U.S. officials have in recent weeks brought renewed pressure on Pakistan to take a more aggressive stance against militants in the tribal regions, where a variety of groups including the Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to operate training camps and stage increasingly ambitious attacks into Afghanistan.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met last week with Pakistani Army chief Ashfaq Kayani aboard an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean and later said he came away from the meeting encouraged by Kayani’s views but believing much more needed to be done.
On the ground, U.S. commanders say the existence of the safe havens in Pakistan makes it all but impossible for the military to pursue a key tenet of its counterinsurgency strategy — denying the insurgents a home base. And they say the problem has grown worse this year.
"Our enemy is operating from Pakistan. Everyone knows it, everyone admits it, and it’s basically a fact," Brig. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the U.S. deputy commander for operations in eastern Afghanistan, told Stars and Stripes last week.
Johnson, whose Task Force Currahee operates in Paktika, Khost and four other provinces with a decadeslong history of Pakistani-influenced militancy, said he was especially concerned by a spike in reports of Arab and other foreign fighters crossing into Afghanistan.
Milley and other officials say they are picking up evidence that some of those foreign fighters may have previously spent time in Iraq.
But if the situation on the border is militarily explosive, it’s also politically delicate. U.S. units in Afghanistan are in some cases permitted to launch indirect fire attacks into Pakistani territory, but U.S. troops are not allowed to pursue insurgents across the border.
U.S. commanders keep up a steady schedule of meetings with their Pakistani counterparts. Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the commander of U.S. troops in the east, travels to Pakistan about once a month. Pakistani commanders make frequent visits as well; last week Johnson took a Pakistani officer on a helicopter tour of American bases along the border.
Americans units have sought to establish tactical communications with the Pakistani side, using radios, walkie-talkies and, in some cases, land-line telephones to link bases on either side of the boarder, and officers say the effort is beginning to pay dividends.
But officials say neither the Pakistani nor American military have the ability to close down the rugged, 1,200-mile border, and that dealing with the problems in the tribal belt will require a concerted, long-term military and economic effort by the Pakistani government, now run by a split coalition.
The Pakistani Army is believed to be fighting in at least three areas in the northwest of the country and claims to have killed hundreds of militants in recent weeks. Terrorist attacks inside Pakistan have also increased.
Milley said the military has limited information on the results of those operations, and said it’s too early to tell how the Pakistani efforts will play out. But he said he believes the Pakistanis now realize that the border insurgency poses a growing threat to their own survival.
"It’s two side to the same coin," Milley said. "This insurgency is really a regional problem involving not just Afghanistan but its neighbors. Ultimately, the solution is going to be one determined by Afghans and Pakistanis."