For the second year in a row, Pakistan is shelling Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, especially Kunar. The issue has recently become politically explosive, with calls for an army of volunteers to man the border and two key ministers being dismissed (on 4 August) over their failure to stop the shelling. Ordinary Afghans expect their government to use the advantage of the international military presence and the strategic partnership with the US to stop the attacks. But the government’s repeated condemnation of the rocketing has had zero impact and the promise by Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasul to refer the case to the UN Security Council has not happened. Making things even more difficult for Afghanistan is that, land-locked and war-ravaged, the country needs the best possible relations with Pakistan with its major transit corridor to the ocean and influence among the Taleban for a possible negotiation. AAN researcher, Gran Hewad, reports.
More than a year ago, in early July 2011, the two-star general in command of the Border Police (ANBP) Eastern Zone, Aminullah Amarkhel, resigned in protest at the failure of the Afghan government and the international military forces to react to a series of missile attacks by Pakistan on the eastern border provinces.(1) Amarkhel’s bold step did not create the reaction he was hoping for. A year later, there had been no easing of the rocketing. As the then director of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Rahmatullah Nabil, told parliament in July 2012: ‘2100 rockets have been fired since the beginning of the current solar year [1391, starting 23 March 2012] on the eastern provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Paktia and Nangarhar.’
However, by the summer of 2012, a broader Afghan public reaction started to take place, with a long series of demonstrations in Kunar and in cities around the country. Moreover, these demonstrations opened a space for public discourse among Afghan commentators and experts on the rocketing in the Afghan media which also led to close questioning of government officials.
NDS director Nabil some weeks before his dismissal (on 13 July), when asked by MPs about the border shelling, said:
If we want to motivate our security forces, and deliver our message to the world, a camp must be established either by MPs, the Marshal [the first vice president Muhammad Qasem Fahim], General Dostum or the Minister of Defence to register volunteers and deploy a hundred thousand people in the border areas for a week. (read here).
In the same plenary session of parliament where Nabil spoke, Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasul declared that, ‘if [bilateral] diplomatic efforts with the Pakistani side give no result, then Afghanistan may discuss the issue with the UNSC (2) and its international partners.’ (read here). What exactly the Minister of Foreign Affairs meant by ‘discuss the issue’ is already vague. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the UN body would adopt a resolution and/or condemn Pakistan, not least because Pakistan is currently enjoying its seventh term as a non-permanent member in the security council and it would be difficult for Afghanistan – with its limited lobbying capacity – to lobby successfully against it. At the same time, the attacks have not been recognized as an aggression by any major UN SC member state. Moreover, relations with Pakistan for UK, China, US and even Russia are more valuable or sensitive in comparison to those with Afghanistan. Mahmud Saiqal, a former deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pointed out another problem: ‘If the present Afghan-Pakistani dispute is referred to the UNSC, Pakistan may exploit the occasion to raise and discuss the unsolved and highly sensitive issue of the Durand Line.’ In other words, it would be better not to open a can of worms, the delimitation and official recognition of the Afghan-Pakistani border, which Afghanistan is presently bad-positioned to solve.
Nevertheless, popular demands for diplomatic – and military – action have continued to come. On 25 August 2012, General Amarkhel – whose resignation has still to be accepted – and Bismillah Sher, leader of Hezb-e Wefaq Melli Islami (National Islamic Pact Party) (3) jointly announced they would soon start the registration of Afghan youths keen to participate in defending their homeland (read here and here). Then, on 30 August, MPs, commentators on TV and hundreds of demonstrators in Kabul (from the National Participation Party/Hezb-e Musharekat-e Melli) demanded the government should refer the shelling to the UN Security Council. Some parties clearly want to cash in on the popular (and populist) anti-Pakistani feelings.
There is another possible course of action. Article nine of the Afghan-US Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed on 2 May, allows consultations over ‘any external aggression against Afghanistan’ with the US ‘on an urgent basis to develop and implement an appropriate response’.(4) Based on the information AAN received from Afghan officials, Kabul has not yet decided to do this. The Agreement, though, does not spell out what such ‘response’ could be and needs to be interpreted in details for further implementation in a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and US, until next September.
As a result, real actions have been few so far. People in Sarkaney district of Kunar, the province which has suffered the worst shelling, announced at a gathering in late August their willingness to start ‘jihad’ against the Pakistani aggression (read here). However, there is no sign yet of a jihad starting for real, and Nur Rahman Gharanai, a tribal leader from Kunar, told AAN showing reasonable constraint: ‘This is not an issue to be solved by the people of the district starting jihad. This is something that must be solved fundamentally between the two governments.’ Fortunately, it seems, the calls for jihad have remained symbolic so far. The Afghan National Border Police, however, did exchange fire with Pakistani troops on 14 August 2012, Pakistan’s Independence Day, for around four hours. This incident, although isolated, shows that the anger has extended to the Afghan armed forces; the policemen were apparently reacting to rockets fired from Pakistan on their check-posts.
Emotional talk about fighting Pakistan among the public is balanced by an awareness of the quantitative and qualitative gap between the military establishments of the two countries, and of the inevitable impact of fighting, or even of a protracted deterioration of the relationship with Pakistan, for Afghanistan’s land-locked economy. As for President Karzai, he has repeatedly stated he will not order any military response to the Pakistani rocket attacks – saying he does not want to hurt civilian people on the other side of the border (read here).
It is difficult to say what Afghanistan can do about the shelling. First of all, there needs to be an understanding of why Pakistan is firing across the border. Afghans are already discussing every possible theory behind the attacks. Is it trying to influence the composition of the post-2014 Afghan leadership? Is it due to Pakistan’s domestic politics, balancing the US drone attacks in North Waziristan and other FATA with the shelling of Afghanistan and thereby trying to sooth hurt feelings of nationalist pride among sectors of its population? Or is Pakistan really concerned about the presence of Pakistani Taleban on Afghan soil and assumes that the Kabul government (or parts of it) is supporting them, in a tit-for-tat for Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taleban – a fact that is only denied by Islamabad itself?
MPs told AAN they think it is the relationship between Kabul and the West and Afghanistan’s emergence as a possible rival to Pakistan in the role of strategic NATO ally in the region in the long run that may be so difficult for Pakistan to tolerate. The MPs suspect that the various agreements – with NATO, the US (the Strategic Partnership Agreement; a Status of Forces Agreement – SOFA – is yet to be agreed upon) and with individual NATO member-states – and the long rounds of talks which preceded them may be one reason for the shelling. In other words, the Pakistani military establishment may want to disturb a potential rival and show off its power to strike the Afghan side of the border without provoking any NATO reaction.
It is clear that, in the last ten years, as the Afghan-international relations have strengthened, Pakistan’s have worsened. A whole series of events testify to this: the killing of Bin Laden in Abbottabad, so close to Islamabad, last year, the ‘double game’ (presenting itself an ally of the international community in the war against terror while providing safe havens to the Taleban on its soil) played by Pakistan government in the international ‘war against terror’, the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and continuing fears about Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons as well as its role in shielding the Haqqani network just declared ‘terrorists’ by the US government. (This last issue was raised on 14 August by the US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta: ‘The great danger we’ve always feared is that if terrorism is not controlled in their country, then those nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands’ (read here).
The rocketing of the border is an important incident, not just for the local population suffering from the attacks in the border provinces, but also for Afghan national pride, that is hurt by it. Historically, external aggressions have helped strengthening unity in the Afghan society, which has often been politically fractious, provided that an efficient and charismatic leadership arose.
At the moment, it is difficult to see what anyone can do about the shelling. A more decisive role could be played by the US, which watch and operate militarily on the soil of both countries, its key allies in the region. However, even as Afghan-US discussions on the BSA progress, Afghans should probably expect more rockets coming in from across the border. This series of attacks will only end when Pakistan’s aims are achieved or when a more effective public reaction takes shape on this side of the Durand line. The latter would be even more effective if those sections of Pakistani Pashtun society that feel solidarity with Afghanistan, due to common historical roots, would translate this feeling into a political movement asking their government to cease the fire.
(1) Pakistani officials have confirmed that their army is shelling the Afghan side of the border but say it is targeting Pakistani Taleban based there. In some cases the Pakistani rockets have missed their targets and hit US forces on Afghan side of the border instead which has created serious collateral effects. The most reported incident was a clash between US and Pakistani troops in Mohmand Agency in November 2011 during which US forces returned fire at Pakistani troops firing rockets over the border, killing around two dozen soldiers. As a reaction, Pakistan closed down the NATO supply route for its troops in Afghanistan (read our previous blog here) and cancelled the trilateral Afghan-Pakistani-ISAF military meetings for several months each. They were only resumed in May 2012. The following meeting which was scheduled for the first week of August has yet to be held, with both sides complaining about each other’s support to the rebel fighters in their territory.
(2) Charter of the United Nations, Article 35:
Any Member of the United Nations may bring any dispute, or any situation of the nature referred to in Article 34, to the attention of the Security Council or of the General Assembly.
(3) Bismillah Sher ran as a candidate in 2009 presidential elections and got 0.1 per cent of the total votes. He is from Kunduz province and was a businessman before joining politics.
(4) There has been US senatorial backing for the implementation of the Strategic Partnership – on 1 August, a bipartisan group of influential American senators introduced a pro-Strategic Partnership Agreement resolution (read here). The US has also recently designated Afghanistan a ‘major non-NATO ally’ (read here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020