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Old Monday, May 21, 2007
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From The TimesMay 19, 2007

Afghan soldiers mass on border, ready and willing to take on old foe

In the late-morning lull that followed the thump of shellfire and chatter of machineguns, the preparations for a small war seemed to be unfolding in the orchards and paddy fields beneath the towering Spingar mountain range.

Scores of heavily armed Afghan troops and fighters from special border police units – determined, professional and evidently spoiling for a fight – gathered around their senior officers for orders. Artillery men waited beside their 122mm field guns hidden among the mulberry groves. And in nearby village bazaars tribesmen clustered around their elders, asking for weapons of their own so that they could join the fray.

Yet the enemy was not the Taleban, nor an infiltrating column of al-Qaeda fighters. Instead, in the remote border district of ’Ali Kheyl in eastern Afghanistan, Afghan security forces have found themselves pitted against an older and bigger enemy: Pakistan.

Clashes between the two neighbours – two of the West’s biggest allies in the War on Terror – began here last Sunday morning when Paki-stani forces fired on an Afghan post at Toorgawe, a strategic point on the border. The fighting is the most serious of its kind for years.

Since Sunday evening there has been a build-up of forces in the contested zone as hundreds of regular Afghan soldiers from the 203rd “Thunder” Corps, who had been fighting the Taleban, have deployed to the area to reinforce the beleaguered border police, bringing with them heavy artillery sent up from Kabul. “We can’t wait any more,” Brigadier Sanaoull Haq, a staff officer in the corps, said. “Now if anything further happens we will reply in kind.”

Each side accuses the other of initiating the bombardments, which so far have left 13 Afghans dead and 51 wounded. Foreign diplomats in Kabul fear that the situation, which has united Afghan nationalist sentiment across every ethnic divide, may escalate. It threatens to wreck any semblance of security cooperation between the countries, to the detriment of Nato’s struggle with the Taleban.

Tension has been growing for months along the 1,615-mile (2,600km) border shared by the two nations. Afghanistan has consistently accused the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, of equipping and training Taleban fighters in camps inside Pakistan, then allowing them to cross into Afghanistan.

Pakistan has recently started building a security fence in selected areas of the border, ostensibly to halt the flow of insurgents. This, in turn, has provoked more Afghan wrath.

The Kabul Government does not recognise the border, drawn up by the British in 1893. Named the Durand line after Sir Mortimer Durand, then Foreign Secretary of the British Indian Government, the demarcation was intended to divide warlike Pashtun tribes antipathetic to British influence. Now Afghanistan sees the security fence as the de facto consolidation of a border dividing them from tribal areas in Pakistan that they claim as their own.

“The Durand line is a suffocating imposition under which we suffer,” said General Abdur Rahman, the chief of Afghanistan’s border police, as he briefed his men at Ghumruk, a customs post near the contested section of frontier, on Thursday. Seven of his men have been killed since the fighting started, yet he insisted that his orders so far were only to defend Afghan territory.

“We have donated our men’s blood to keep even a single foot of Pakistan from stepping inside our border,” he added. “But our orders from the Interior Ministry are to hold our positions, avoid trouble, and not fire unless fired upon.”

There was no security fence being built by Pakistan at Toorgawe. Instead, the Afghans say that their police in the post were attacked without warning simply because of its desirable strategic location.

“Wherever they see one of our border positions on a high pass they try to influence it,” said Brigadier Haq. “Since the Mujahidin times the Pakistanis have thought our country is their own. Then the Taleban came and still the Pakistanis could put up border posts wherever they wanted.

“Now we have a central government and an army of our own and the Pakistanis are angry. They can’t tolerate us or our border.” In the initial absence of regular troops hundreds of Pashtun tribesmen from local villages rushed to support the Afghan border police during the attacks on Sunday.

“We were carrying rifles, axes and swords,” said Nawruz, one of the tribesmen who participated. “I took 15 men with me from my village. We got into a trench and started firing back at the Pakistani militia. One of my friends died beside me, killed by a Pakistani mortar round.”

On Monday a joint Afgh-an-American delegation flew across the border for talks with Pakistani officers aimed at producing a ceasefire. The meeting was held in a schoolhouse in Teri Mangel, a small town in the Kurram tribal area of Pakistan. Yet after the negotiations concluded the delegation was fired upon. An American soldier was killed and four others wounded.

Though Nato and Pakistan, keen to play down the incident, say the attack was the work of a single rogue member of a Pakistani militia, two Afghan delegates present as part of the delegation who were separately interviewed byThe Times, Governor Rahmatullah Rahman and Colonel Shamsur, say they were fired on by up to a dozen uniformed Pakistani militiamen.

“There were two groups of Pakistani militia shooting at us,” said Governor Rahmatullah. “One group was placed among rocks and it fired at the delegation as it drove from the school to be picked up by a helicopter. The other group fired at the delegation’s security guards in the school’s courtyard. The attackers were in uniform. I saw at least ten.”

Despite this attack, a border ceasefire held until Thursday, when renewed artillery exchanges began in the morning and lasted until midday. Though both the Pakistani militia in Kurram and the Afghans in ’Ali Kheyl are Pashtuns of the same Zazi tribe, their kinship seems to be no barrier to the desire to fight one another.

“When it is a question of territory or land even if it is your own brother you don’t care,” said Malik Khir Gul Khan, one of the Afghan tribal elders.

“Under our code of Pashtun-wali if your brother takes your house or land then you have to kill him or die trying.”

So far Nato and American-led coalition forces have kept their forces away from the area of fighting, though Captain Aziz, an Afghan army commander at Ghumruk, said on Thursday that he had seen an eight-man team of American troops move forward to observe the clashes until they, too, were shelled and withdrew.

Afghanistan’s 46,000-strong army is in no position to take on the military might of Pakistan, besides which diplomatic pressure on both countries makes it extremely unlikely that the scope of fighting will spread between regular forces. However, the fighting has sparked antiPakistani sentiment among the Afghan border tribes at a time when the fortunes of every foreign player trying to stabilise Afghanistan are dependent on the two neighbours cooperating.

“Only this morning I have had tribal elders offer me 400 men to fight the Pakistanis,” said Captain Aziz. “I have to keep ordering them to stay in their villages. Man, woman and child, in this area they are all ready to give their blood in a fight with Pakistan.”
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