Strikes on U.S., Afghan forces up four­fold on Pak­istan border

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By David R. Sands

KABUL, Afghanistan — Cross­bor­der at­tacks against U.S. and Afghan forces have in­creased four­fold since Pak­istan signed a pact in Septem­ber giv­ing tribal groups greater con­trol of some border ar­eas, U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said on Jan. 16.

Pak­istani of­fi­cials hailed the agree­ment that was drawn up as a way to en­tice lo­cal tribe and clan lead­ers to mon­i­tor the por­ous border in North Waziris­tan, where the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has his­tor­i­cally had lit­tle sway. A sim­i­lar deal was reached ear­lier for South Waziris­tan.

But U.S. and Afghan of­fi­cials say the re­sults to date have been very dis­ap­point­ing, pre­dict­ing 2007 and 2008 would be the most vi­o­lent years in bat­tling the in­sur­gency since the U.S.-led in­va­sion that top­pled the Tal­iban in early 2002.

“We do have a prob­lem,” said Lt. Gen. Karl Eiken­berry, com­man­der of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates, in Kabul for two days of brief­ings on the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan, said af­ter a meet­ing with Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai that there was “no ques­tion there has been a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in cross-border at­tacks and it is a prob­lem.”

But he added that Pak­istan had proven it­self a strong ally in the global war on ter­ror­ism.

The U.S. com­man­der in Afghanistan said he wants to ex­tend the com­bat tours of 1,200 sol­diers amid ris­ing vi­o­lence, and Mr. Gates said he was “strongly in­clined” to rec­om­mend a troop in­crease to Pres­i­dent Bush if com­man­ders think it is needed.

The de­fense sec­re­tary also said Pak­istan must act to stem an in­creas­ing flow of Tal­iban fight­ers into Afghanistan.

Pak­istan’s am­bas­sador in Wash­ing­ton, Mah­mud Ali Dur­rani, told The Wash­ing­ton Times on Jan. 15 that Islamabad was plan­ning a num­ber of steps to im­prove border se­cu­rity, in­clud­ing the ad­di­tion of new border posts and the clos­ing of four Afghan refugee camps lo­cated near the border.

Nev­er­the­less, U.S. mil­i­tary offi- cials here were scathing about the re­sults of the Waziris­tan ac­cords, struck at a time when Tal­iban forces al­ready were in­creas­ing the num­ber and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of their at­tacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.

Two weeks ago, 150 Is­lamist fight­ers in six trucks drove to the Pak­istan border and slipped unim­peded into Afghanistan’s Khost prov­ince for a planned at­tack on a U.S.-manned for­ward op­er­at­ing base. The in­cur­sion was de­tected by coali­tion forces and most of the fight­ers were killed, but the ease with which they crossed the border up­set U.S. of­fi­cials.

The Tal­iban’s open use of Pak­istan as a sanc­tu­ary and re­cruit­ing base “is crit­i­cally chal­leng­ing the abil­ity of the gov­ern­ment of Afghanistan to stand it­self up,” a U.S. mil­i­tary briefer, speak­ing on back­ground, said, sum­ma­riz­ing the latest intelligence on the in­sur­gent threat. Of­fi­cials said at least three Tal­iban- and al Qaedaaf­fil­i­ated groups were in­volved in at­tacks.

Sta­tis­tics show a star­tling in­crease in the num­ber of con­fronta­tions with Is­lamist anti-gov­ern­ment forces, which U.S. and NATO of­fi­cials at­tribute in part to their own stepped-up op­er­a­tions to find and hit ter­ror­ist sanc­tu­ar­ies.

Sui­cide bomb­ings in Afghanistan jumped from 27 in 2005 to 139 last year, while di­rect and in­di­rect fire in­ci­dents nearly tripled to 6,053. Anti-gov­ern­ment forces planted 1,677 im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices, or IEDs, last year, com­pared to just 783 in 2005.

More wor­ri­some, the at­tacks have not ta­pered off in the win­ter months of 2006 as they had in the past.

“The Tal­iban kind of got their legs un­der them last year,” an­other U.S. gen­eral, also brief­ing on back­ground, said.

Both Gen. Eiken­berry and Mr. Karzai said Afghan and coali­tion forces are pre­pared for an­other bloody year.

With nearly 23,000 U.S. troops in the coun­try, the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence is at an all-time high and Gen. Eiken­berry said he is lob­by­ing to keep 1,200 U.S. troops now in the coun­try from be­ing trans­ferred to Iraq.

The gen­eral said he thought it was un­likely that the num­ber of U.S. troops in Afghanistan could be brought down be­fore 2009 at the ear­li­est.

Com­man­ders at the NATO-led In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity As­sis­tance Force (ISAF) painted a more op­ti­mistic pic­ture, say­ing a NATO of­fen­sive in the sum­mer of 2006 had dealt Tal­iban forces a ma­jor tac­ti­cal de­feat around the south­ern city of Kan­da­har. ISAF of­fi­cials said they had re­ceived ex­cel­lent co­op­er­a­tion from the Pak­istan gov­ern­ment in the fight.

Pak­istani of­fi­cials in Islamabad said Pak­istan’s army de­stroyed sus­pected al Qaeda hide-outs in an air strike near the Afghan border in South Waziris­tan on Jan. 16, killing 10 per­sons, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported.

Mr. Gates on Jan. 16 trav­eled to Afghanistan’s east­ern moun­tains to visit For­ward Op­er­at­ing Base Till­man, which is named for for­mer Ari­zona Car­di­nals foot­ball star Pat Till­man, killed by “friendly fire” in a U.S. Spe­cial Forces op­er­a­tion in Afghanistan in 2004.

With the Pak­istan border clearly vis­i­ble from the camp, Cpl. Travis Phillips, a mor­tar gun­ner from Bra­zo­ria, Texas, told Mr. Gates that in­sur­gents had fired “rock­ets ga­lore” at the base re­cently, from both Pak­istani and Afghan ter­ri­tory.

While U.S. troops can re­turn fire at Pak­istani tar­gets in ex­tra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions with top-level clear­ance, Cpl. Phillips said he had never done so dur­ing his time at the base. “You don’t want to start an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent,” he said.

Agence France Presse / Getty Images

De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Gates (sec­ond from right) vis­ited U.S. troops Jan. 16 at For­ward Op­er­at­ing Base Till­man in south­east­ern Afghanistan, near the vil­lage of Lawara close to the Pak­istani border. Cross-border clashes be­tween Tal­iban in­sur­gents and U.S. and Afghan troops have been on the in­crease in the area.

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