Since mid-June, warming relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have run into serious trouble again. Pakistan accuses Afghanistan (and ISAF) of doing nothing to stop militants from attacking Pakistani border posts and villages, Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of shelling villages in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, killing civilians and causing hundreds of families to flee. AAN Advisory Board member Ann Wilkens* looks at the background.
It is clear enough that attacks have, indeed, taken place on both sides of the border – on 4 July a sixth incursion by at least 300 militants crossing into the FATA agency of Bajaur, across the border from Kunar, was reported by Reuters.** However, nobody has provided a coherent explanation as to why this is happening, why it is happening right now and what any of the parties involved could hope to achieve by it – unless, of course, it is just another instance of destructive behaviour popping up, seemingly from nowhere, and developing into a negative spiral in an atmosphere of mutual distrust and distress.
Interpretations voiced on the Afghan side follow the lines of conspiracy thinking common in the region: The Pakistani army does this because they want to obstruct the peace and reconciliation process supposedly taking place in Afghanistan, because they want to draw attention away from their rather humiliating role in the killing of Osama ben Laden, because they want to put pressure on the Durand Line issue or plan to destabilize Kunar province to put obstacles for a dam building project pursued by the Kabul government which would limit water flows into Pakistan.
While there could be some truth in all of these explanations, they bypass the fact that provocations emanating from the Afghan side do seem to have taken place: One of the first signs of upcoming problems was a report onGeo news on 16 June that scores of armed militants had crossed the border from Afghanistan and stormed a village in Bajaur, killing five civilians. On 18 June it was followed by a report on the Dawn website that Afghan forces had opened fire on Pakistani traders in Spin Boldak, injuring eight and causing the closure of the border at Chaman for several hours.
Viewed through the Pakistani prism this might be just another chapter in the old and ongoing story of the world putting a lot of pressure on Pakistan to do more in what is left of the ‘Global War On Terror’, while not doing its own part of the same struggle. US forces have withdrawn from Afghan regions bordering Pakistan, nobody else has stepped in to protect these regions. Still, Pakistan is pushed, if not hounded, to enhance its mission in North Waziristan, the result of which might well be that even more insurgents are driven across the border – into positions from where they could again attack Pakistan with impunity.
Feelings of being the scape-goat of the world run deep in the Pakistani mindset. Within the Pakistani army, now extra sore due to massive loss of face after the US raid on Osama bin Laden´s hiding place in Abbottabad, this theme is recurrent. For instance: Brave Pakistani soldiers take great risks to capture Afghan drug-lords on Pakistani territory, who are subsequently handed back to Afghan authorities and, within a short time, easily bribe their way out of prison, picking up business where it was left. Still, irritating for Islamabad, labels such as ‘AfPak’ are used by the West… And even worse, nobody mentions India in this context…
Again from the Pakistani point of view, the Durand Line issue is not just an excuse for rogue behaviour, it is a real concern. Pakistan remains a country with a large portion of its borders, both in the West and in the East, in limbo as far as international recognition is concerned. For an army in charge of maintaining national sovereignty, this is deeply unsettling. But it does not seem to attract much international attention or generate any dividends such as the benefit of the doubt in favour of Pakistan, constantly labeled as the bad boy.
The skirmishes across the Durand Line also land into a particularly difficult period in the US-Pakistani relations, or more particularly the relations between the US government and the Pakistani army. Having had, for a long time, the privileged position of being treated as the real leaders of Pakistan, and having profited for as long from massive support without too many strings attached, Pakistani generals now feel the discomfort of increasing questions asked in Washington as to its credentials, as well as new restrictions put on aid. This compounds the humiliations already suffered and could lead to reckless behavior, not unknown in the history of Pakistan´s armed forces.
But we don´t really know. Transparency is not on top of the agenda over these issues. Other values are. (I once had a cap handed to me as a present by a Pakistani officer in one of the Western border regions, sporting the motto: ‘Death before disgrace’.) But perhaps we can hope that the joint military commission recently agreed by Prime Minister Gilani and President Karzai will serve to clear the mist and stop the chain of events in the border region from developing into another full-blown regional crisis.
(*) Ann Wilkens is a member of the Advisory Board of the AAN. She was a Swedish diplomat from 1972 and 2009, posted to Islamabad as Ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan from 2003 and 2007, and is now an independent political analyst.
(**) Reports of cross-border shelling also came from Nuristan, Khost and Paktika provinces. In Nuristan, incessant fighting is reported since mid-March, of late it is concentrated on Kamdesh district. Afghanistan’s regional border police chief accused the Pakistani military of supporting the attacking insurgents by cross-border artillery barrages.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020