Pressure on Pakistan
June 26, 2008
NATO forces and the US-backed government of President Hamid
Karzai were compelled to launch a major operation last week to
dislodge hundreds of anti-occupation fighters who had seized control
of villages in the Arghandab valley, just 16 kilometres to the
northwest of Kandahar city. Some of the 1,000-plus prisoners who
were freed during the assault on the Sarposa prison in Kandahar
on June 13 may have been involved. They reportedly linked up with
insurgents who had recently crossed into Afghanistan from safe-havens
A 700-strong battalion of the Afghan Army was rushed to Arghandab
from Kabul to reinforce local units and spearhead the offensive
to retake as many as 10 villages. NATO aircraft dropped leaflets
advising the population to remain in their homes. However, after
years of US air strikes and artillery barrages inflicting civilian
deaths and injuries, thousands of people elected to flee. A police
officer manning a checkpoint on the occupation-held eastern side
of the Arghandab River told Reuters that as many as 4,000 villagers
left the area for Kandahar.
Afghan government forces crossed the river and pushed into
the valley last Wednesday, backed by Canadian and US troops, warplanes,
unmanned Predator drones and helicopter gunships.
There are conflicting reports regarding casualties. Kandahar
governor Asadullah Khalid took journalists to one village, Manara,
where the mangled bodies of as many as 19 men lay around a crater
caused by a 225-kilogram bomb dropped by a US warplane. Khalid
claimed that at least 105 guerillas had been killed during the
American and Canadian officers did not endorse Khalid’s
claim, stating that the insurgents had not attempted to directly
engage the more numerous and better-armed occupation forces, and
had fled the area. Two Afghan soldiers were killed in the first
hours of the operation, but no other occupation casualties were
By the weekend, NATO officers claimed that the Arghandab valley
was securely in their control. Nevertheless, the ability of insurgents
to brazenly storm a major prison and follow it up by seizing a
rural area so close to one of Afghanistan’s largest cities
underscores the fragility of the US-led occupation.
US general Dan McNeill, the outgoing commander of the NATO-led
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told journalists
in early June that at least 400,000 troops would be needed to
control a country as large and populous as Afghanistan.
The ISAF, however, consists of just 53,000 troops, of whom
about 20,000 are deployed in the ethnic Pashtun southern provinces
where the vast bulk of insurgent activity is taking place. An
American force of some 14,000 operates independently of the ISAF
in the eastern provinces, ostensibly in search of Osama bin Laden
and surviving Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan. The foreign troops
are supported by the Afghan Army, but it consists of just 70,000
men of varying training and reliability.
Outside the major cities, insurgents are able to move with
relative impunity. Adding to the military challenges facing the
occupation forces are the tribal ties between Pashtuns on both
sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pashtun fighters move
freely between the two countries, using the autonomous tribal
provinces in Pakistan to rest, re-supply, train and recruit. Under
pressure from Washington, the Pakistani government has deployed
tens of thousands of troops into the frontier provinces since
2002. After years of clashes with Pashtun tribesmen, however,
Pakistani forces have proven unable—or, in many cases, no
longer willing—to prevent cross-border movements.
US Major General Jeffrey Schloesser, the commander of the American
force in eastern Afghanistan, told journalists on Tuesday that
attacks on his troops had increased by 40 percent this year. He
stated that 12 percent of all insurgent attacks took place along
the Pakistani border. "The enemy is taking refuge and operating
with some freedom of movement in the border region," he said.
Schloesser also described the growing tactical sophistication
of the Afghan guerillas in using roadside bombs. Over recent months,
the general reported, insurgents have begun allowing convoys to
pass one bomb, then hit it with a second further up the road.
Following the bombing, machine gun and small arms fire is poured
in from both sides of the road. Quick reaction units coming to
assist the ambushed convoy are then hit by the first bomb. The
size of the explosives has also increased as insurgents seek to
destroy the more heavily armoured vehicles used by the US military.
Vehicle and body armour are the main factors keeping deaths
and injuries among occupation troops in Afghanistan relatively
low. Casualties have spiked this month, however. At least 35 US
and NATO troops have been killed in June thus far, compared with
23 in May, 14 in April and 19 in March.
In the most recent incidents, guerillas on motorcycles attacked
a convoy of trucks on Tuesday carrying food and other supplies
for NATO troops in Kabul as it approached the town of Saydabad,
some 60 kilometres to the south of the capital. The insurgents
killed one person in the convoy and set as many as 40 trucks ablaze.
In Helmand province, a British soldier was shot dead the same
day during a firefight in the Sangin Valley, while an American
soldier was killed and three others wounded when their patrol
struck a mine in the eastern province of Nangahar.
The day before, a US air strike allegedly killed a young man
and a child in Nangahar, provoking demonstrations and vows of
vengeance among local tribesmen. Clashes also took place from
Friday to Sunday in the eastern province of Paktika, between US
troops and a large contingent of insurgents who had crossed over
from Pakistan. American military sources claimed that 55 militants
had been killed, mainly by air strikes.
As the insurgency grows, NATO countries are continuing to baulk
at US, Canadian and British appeals for them to send more troops
to Afghanistan. Germany announced this week it would deploy an
additional 1,000 personnel, but not until after October and only
for service in the relatively calm northern sector of the country.
The crisis within NATO over how it will furnish the additional
combat troops that military commanders say are needed is also
leading to ever greater demands on the new Pakistani government
to do more to stop insurgents using its territory as a safe-haven.
A volatile situation is developing in Pakistan as a result.
The Afghan insurgents are almost universally labelled "Taliban"—or
loyalists of the Islamic fundamentalist regime that was overthrown
in 2001. Such a label only obscures the extent of the political
and military opposition arrayed against the US-led invasion.
The insurgency against the US occupation has a number of driving
forces, with anti-colonial sentiment playing a major role. For
more than a century, the Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan
border have waged protracted guerilla wars against every attempt
to subjugate their territory. The resistance to US and NATO forces
and the Pakistani government troops who have been deployed into
the tribal regions is simply the latest chapter in a long struggle
to maintain their independence.
The Karzai regime in Kabul is not only hated because it is
an American puppet. Ethnic, tribal and religious factors are also
in play. Though Karzai is a Pashtun, large sections of the Pashtun
tribal hierarchy see his government as a stooge for the Tajik
and Uzbek warlords whom they fought in the 1990s.
The Taliban emerged as a Pakistani-backed Pashtun movement
to end the highly unstable warlord regime that followed the collapse
of the Soviet puppet government in 1992. Sunni Islamic extremism
and Pashtun nationalism were exploited to recruit youth from the
squalid Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan, as well as Pakistani
tribesmen, for a military force. The Taliban were financed and
equipped by the Pakistani military, particularly the intelligence
agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). As the Taliban
marched into southern Afghanistan in 1994, many of the Pashtun
tribes allied themselves with it. By 1996 it had taken Kabul.
The current insurgency has clear parallels with the 1994-1996
civil war. The warlords defeated by the Taliban reconstituted
themselves as the Northern Alliance. In 2001, the Bush administration
returned them power. Now the Taliban and allied militias are fighting
to restore Pashtun hegemony.
Pakistan’s backing for the Taliban in the 1990s was not
motivated by religious, tribal or ethnic considerations, but by
the geo-political interests of the Pakistani ruling elite. Their
main concern was that the Tajik and Uzbek warlords were coming
under the sway of India, their main regional rival, along with
Iran and Russia.
Despite overwhelming popular opposition to US militarism inside
Pakistan, the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf acquiesced in the
destruction of its Taliban client-state in order to preserve its
alliance with Washington. It also bowed to US demands to crush
Taliban activity inside Pakistan, by sending more than 90,000
troops into the autonomous tribal provinces.
Nearly seven years on, however, the possibility is emerging
of a rupture between the US and Pakistan over the renewed influence
of India in Afghanistan and the incessant US demands for tougher
military measures in Pakistan’s border areas.
Seth Jones, an analyst for the US Rand Corporation, noted to
Voice of America on June 13: "What you have now is a government
based in Kabul that is strongly allied with India, not with Pakistan.
And so I think that is of major concern. You have a number of
Indian development projects based in Afghanistan. You have road
construction. You have a lot of Indian money that’s poured
in. I think that has been felt with deep concern among senior
elements of the Pakistan government, and certainly at lower levels
of key government agencies."
Jones claimed that Afghan insurgents were receiving backing
from within Pakistan. "There is clear information that’s
been collected by NATO, by a range of other organisations, including
the United Nations, which indicates that there is more than just
passive support and unwillingness to act on Pakistani soil, but
that there is at least non-lethal assistance, training, logistical
support, the provision of intelligence, by elements of the Pakistan
government, in particular the Inter Services Intelligence directorate
and the Frontier Corps."
There is a groundswell of US accusations against the Pakistani
military. The British Observer reported on Sunday that
the American military had "box-loads" of evidence that
members of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps—the paramilitary
force responsible for security in the tribal regions—were
taking part in cross-border attacks.
An unnamed source told the Observer: "The reality
is that there are units so opposed to what the coalition is doing
and so friendly to the other side that when the opportunity comes
up they will fire on Afghan and coalition troops. And this is
not random. It can be exceptionally well co-ordinated."
On June 11, US air strikes were unleashed against positions
of the Frontier Corps in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region,
killing 11 soldiers. The American military continues to insist
that it bombed Taliban insurgents who had attacked Afghan troops
and then retreated over the border.
The New York Times published claims on June 24 that
the Pakistani military was "brokering cease-fires and prisoner
exchanges" with the Taliban and "allowing the militants
to consolidate their sanctuaries while spreading their tentacles
all along the border area".
On June 15, Afghan president Hamid Karzai declared his military
forces had the right to cross the border in pursuit of Taliban
insurgents. The accusations of direct Pakistani complicity in
the Afghan insurgency will only heighten tensions. Ultimately,
it could trigger an Afghanistan-Pakistan border war that draws
other powers into open conflict with Pakistan, including the US