The air-strikes that hit two Pakistani check-posts on the border between Mohmand Agency and Kunar province, killing 24 (some sources still report 25 or 26) Pakistani security forces and injuring a dozen more, have triggered, as expected, a strong reaction from the Pakistani authorities. As of now, Pakistan, ISAF and the Afghan military have very different views on the airstrikes: They are defined alternatively as an unprovoked attack, a tragic mistake or a legitimate answer to hostile fire. While waiting for an ISAF investigation to throw light on its actions, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini tries to clarify some of the basics – where the incident took place – and assess the possible consequences.
News of the attack broke on Saturday and already has been displaced in the Afghan and international media by yesterday’s announcement of the areas which will go through the second transition of security. Yet, it is still big news in Pakistan, holding its place on the front pages of most newspapers and websites there.
Quite understandably, the tone in the Pakistani reporting is incensed and condemnation is unanimous across the board, from the widest possible spectrum of political parties. What is perceived as a clear violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty has spurred the Defence Committee of the Cabinet to close the border crossings at Chaman and Torkham to NATO supplies, to ask the US to vacate an airbase, Shamsi in Baluchistan, from where apparently its drones take off (although it is not clear if it is still an active airbase) and, more in general, to announce a review of Pakistan’s relation with the US, (further details from Pakistani media here; here; and here).
The Pakistani media is unanimous in reporting that the strikes happened well inside Mohmand Agency, and targeted soldiers who were mostly sleeping in their quarters. Afghan military sources, on the contrary, claim that there was an on-going military operation, with US troops on the Afghan side of the border engaged by fire originating from the Pakistani check-posts, and that these checkposts were hit in response to the attack. An earlier announcement from the chief of the Afghan border police for the eastern region General Aminullah Amarkhel, to the effect that the raid had killed ten Pakistani militants, proved incorrect (read it here). What seems clear is that the strikes were carried out by jets, probably coming from Bagram airbase, and that the engagement lasted more than one hour. Local Afghan sources contacted by AAN concur with the military that even Pakistani forces who were moving to the scene as reinforcements were targeted, following the initial strike.
It is difficult to add more information on the incident at this stage without reporting mainly rumours, but taking a closer look at the area where it took place does prove more enlightening. On the Afghan side, the area corresponds to the Maya valley, a branch of the wider Shunkray valley (also spelt Shinkorey). Though not as important as the Nawa Pass in neighbouring Sirkanay, this section of the border reportedly constitutes a crossing point for insurgents moving across the Durand Line. The Shunkray valley, the northernmost side valley in Khas Kunar district on the border with Sirkanay, begins at Barabat village on the main Kunar river. If you were to walk up the valley, it winds up to the Afghan-Pakistan border for about 15 kilometres as the crow flies, eventually ramifying into a series of tributary valleys. According to locals interviewed by AAN, this area has been chosen as the headquarters of a group of Salafi Taleban, whose leader, Haji Abdur-Rahim, stems from Pashat village in the neighbouring Sirkanay district.* He had reportedly left Shunkray area after an ISAF airstrike killed a dozen of his men on 24 October. Salafi militants also used to constitute one of the two major groups active in Mohmand Agency. They opposed Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan’s (TTP) policy of attacking Pakistani institutions and this triggered a vicious internecine conflict between them and the local TTP, with the TTP getting the upper hand until they were targeted by a Pakistani military operation in early 2009 and were forced to partially relocate across the border into Kunar (read also here).
Nurgal and Khas Kunar districts of Kunar are indeed affected by the activities of the prominent TTP commander, Abdul Wali, alias Omar Khaled. He comes from Kandaharho village in Mohmand Agency and is credited with attacking the Salafi militants in Mohmand in July 2008 and killing their leader Shah Sahib because of his pro-government stance. Although Abdul Wali has now reportedly taken shelter in the fastnesses of Nuristan, TTP militants coming from Mohmand and other areas of Pakistan are still very much present in lower Kunar province where they co-exist with the Emirate Taleban, although apparently without really being fond of each other (for reporting about the attempted division of Kunar between Afghan Taleban and Pakistani TTP see our previous blog here).
One significant question is who was the target of the initial ISAF/Afghan ground operation on Afghan soil on Saturday night – the TTP or Salafis? If Salafis, would it make sense for the Pakistani security forces to fire at ISAF forces in order to try and preserve ‘friendly militants’ (whose presence might in turn act as a buffer against the cross-border raiding TTP militants)? Provided that reports of Pakistani Army fire endangering the ISAF are true, this is not necessarily linked to a specific tactical decision. Artillery shelling of Afghan territory by the Pakistani military is nothing new; actually it has been a constant of the eastern region border over the past six months. This seemingly random fire, whatever its purpose or intentionality, has apparently never caused damage to the international troops (although it has killed or injured scores of Afghan civilians). Opinions about it are divided however: UNAMA states the Pakistan fire has carefully avoided targeting the ISAF, while an international organisation working in the area reported to AAN that ISAF patrols were often aimed at. According to local reporting, and also to a UNAMA investigation, the Khas Kunar border area, however, has not experienced the worst of the Pakistani shelling during the last months. Rather, this has mainly targeted the neighbouring districts to the North (Sirkanay) and to the South (Goshta in Nangarhar).
Another question mark relates to the location of the check-posts targeted by ISAF fire, which some Afghan sources claimed were built inside Afghan territory. They were more probably right on the border, as the Durand Line in the area was traced on a ridge which forms the watershed between the Kunar river system and the Swat river basin. If it is true that, as Afghan military and local sources reported, the Pakistani troops fired from the top of the ridge, or that anyway, the posts are exactly situated on top of it, this would refute both the Pakistani claim that the check-posts were 2.5 km inside the border and the Afghan claim that the Pakistani security forces have encroached on their territory in past years and had positioned the check-posts inside Afghanistan.
While land encroachments are often reported in areas where the border does not follow clear natural landmarks (like neighbouring Goshta district of Nangrahar, also bordering Mohmand Agency), this looks more unlikely to happen for Khas Kunar. Scrutinising maps of the area and trying to marry up the different claims with the geography, it becomes clear that the Pakistani claim would entail the check-posts being situated at an altitude of around 800 meters lower than the mountain ridge (which ranges between 1900-2100 meters above sea level in this area), and in all probability be in the middle of the inhabited settlements that dot the area on the Pakistani side. This would also contradict earlier statements from Pakistani officials that they, ‘were located about 1,000 feet apart on a mountain top and were set up recently to stop Pakistani Taliban militants holed up in Afghanistan from crossing the border and staging attacks.’ Indeed such a removed location from the border would not make the posts fit for their stated strategic purpose (read the contrasting claims here and here). It may be that the check-posts were indeed inside Pakistani territory, but most probably right on the Durand Line.** In any case, it is highly improbable that the US commands did not have information about their existence and location.
Inhabitants of Khas Kunar interviewed by AAN sounded sceptical about the significance of the incident in terms of the long-term US-Pak relations. They term the tension between them a typical jang-e bazari, meaning a conflict where, however much each side raises its voice, nobody really wants to get hurt. Like other Afghans, they consider the mutual alliance and interests between Pakistan and US to be stronger than their occasional problems. Last summer for example, during the worst of the Pakistani shelling of Kunar, some locals even had it that Pakistani security forces were acting on behalf of the US, willing to scare Afghans into accepting a long-term strategic partnership agreement (SPA) with America. The usual lack of US reaction in the face of a months-long series of incidents involving Pakistani fire on Afghan territory drew harsh criticism.
That is why Afghans are now wondering what prompted the US to react in such a strong way after so many months of passive waiting. Some pointed to the timing, with the attack coming after the Loya Jirga discussed the SPA.*** However, the standard procedure for ISAF troops when engaged by Pakistani military fire is supposed to consist in breaking contact unless in immediate danger.’ This was definitely not the case on Saturday night. It may be that the US military’s quick and massive reaction to any real or perceived shelling from the Pakistani security forces this time was a deliberate warning from the US command in Afghanistan at both a local and national level, directing Pakistan to stop ambiguous or hostile behaviour against its troops.
It may sound cynical in the face of the two dozen dead bodies, but one has to analyse the surreal partnership between the US and Pakistan. Washington increasingly blames the Pakistani government for its failures in Afghanistan. Islamabad, while still getting most of its development aid and military budget from the US, has also apparently adopted anti-Americanism as a state policy in order to gain public support and cover its own internal problems. In this context, and with the amount of troops and warring factions involved, one has to consider military hostilities between the parties as something which could be quite normal and one wonders how it is possible they do not happen more often.****
Now, it is only to be hoped that these deaths do not prove futile as so many before have been – of Pakistanis, Americans, and many more of Afghans. Afghanistan will be the first and foremost to suffer if the road blockade enforced by Pakistan at the border is protracted. With winter at the gates and prices of basic products already sky rocketing, there is no doubt that the border crisis will help the profiteers in hoarding up goods to increase demand.***** The Afghans must already deal with a trio of their own ministers (Economy, Finance and Commerce) who last week confessed to the Parliament that they could not stop inflation or regulate the prices of basic goods, as well as with a Parliament, that on the same day failed to have a quorum and thus could not take any initiative to sanction the government’s inactivity. Afghans should not be asked to pay some sort of US-Pak ‘hysteria relation tax’ as an additional overprice.
ISAF, which announced its commitment to ‘thoroughly investigate’ and ‘determine the facts’ (read here), should make sure its investigation clarifies the obscure circumstances of the airstrike and show if the raid had indeed been ordered as a response to enemy fire, and furthermore, if ISAF subscribes to Afghan views that ISAF troops were under attack from the Pakistani military or only insurgents’ fire. It is only in this way that ISAF will dispel the notion that the raid may have been something more ‘structured’ than an incident of ‘friendly fire’ during a combat situation.
Also, these dead should not fan the blind anti-American rage which makes Pakistanis insensitive to the basic contradiction that underlines the position of their government, especially the military, in relation to the Afghan conflict. This is the distinction made by the security forces (and part of the media, by default) concerning non-state political actors engaged in (armed) militancy in the name of jihad, namely between those who fight inside and outside the country.
Heavy-handed military operations which have been seen against those jihadis who threaten the Pakistani state (Swat 2009, for example) represent an extreme course of action, which always entails civilian suffering at the hands of the security forces and the engendering of a vicious trend of repression-insurrection. International and Afghan calls for operations of the same scale and type against those who threaten ‘only’ the Afghan population and government – such as the Waziristan-based Local Taleban Movement of Gul Bahadur and Mullah Nazir, or the Haqqani network and other Afghan Taleban, will always meet with Pakistani resiliency, but the Pakistan government should at least not lend political legitimacy to these groups, much less give them material support to carry out attacks across the Afghan border.******
When Pakistani policy translates itself into a massive presence of Pakistani jihadists inside Afghanistan, especially in the eastern region, it of course becomes a risky course of action for its relations with Afghanistan and the foreign troops present in it, and incidents such as the recent one, however heinous, cannot be considered as having come out of the blue. The time when the Pakistani government starts taking its Afghan counterpart seriously (and the Afghans thus stop being obsessed by the menace of their neighbour’s interference) may still be far in the future. In the meantime however, the Pakistani elites are allowing their country to be drawn closer and closer to an open conflict situation with the US, and although this may boost national unity in the short term, it is not going to solve the country’s problems in terms of economy, security, democracy or poor diplomatic relations.
* Not to be confused with Mawlawi Abdur-Rahim, the former Taleban shadow governor for Kunar province. Haji Abdur-Rahim can boast family connections with of one the most glorious episodes of Salafism in Afghanistan, the virtually independent state run by Jamil ur-Rahman towards the end of the 80s, as his uncle Patang was chief of intelligence. Part of the Shunkray valley is administratively situated into Sirkanay district.
** Altogether, some Pakistani media seem pretty confused as to the general features of the border region. Thanks to the notification of a friend, AAN reproduces here the cover page of the Express Tribune of 28 November. It sports a map where the border of Pakistan reaches up to Laghman, and the location of the US airstrike, notwithstanding the captions, corresponds roughly to Nurgram district of Nuristan. This crass misrepresentation of the border area does not add weight to hypothesis of the Pakistani media independently verifying their government’s claim about the location of the check-posts.
*** Although such an attack probably goes beyond the pale of options considered viable even by the more nationalistic Afghans, a more aggressive posture in a problematic border area like Kunar, whose shelling by Pakistan has deeply disturbed Afghans in the past months, certainly plays in the direction of their request for US commitment to actively defend Afghanistan against ‘neighbours threats’. However, one could argue that the attack, if intentional, would have hardly been consistent with another of the requests the Loya Jirga conveyed for the strategic agreement to be accepted, namely that Afghan territory must not be used to harm neighbouring countries (see our previous blog here).
**** For a lighter episode of the crazy US-Pak relationship, check out the so-called ‘Memo-gate’, the alleged call for help sent by Pakistan’s ambassador to the US to Admiral Mike Mullen through a controversial Pakistani-American businessman to stop an impending military coup d’état in Pakistan. No victims this time, apart from ambassador Hussein Haqqani, who was recalled, made to resign and publicly ostracized, without a single proof, so far, of his involvement being produced (read more details here).
***** Prices of common goods have already experienced one of the most dramatic increases this year, just to give some examples of fluctuations between 2010 and 2011:
Wood fuel (1 seer) : 50 afs to 100 afs
Gas fuel (1KG): 40 afs to 100 afs
Petrol (1L): 50 afs to 60 afs (taxi prices felt it much more)
Flour (1 seer): 100 afs to 200 afs
Rice (1 seer): 300 afs to 500 afs
Vegetable oil (5L): 400 afs to 650-700 afs
****** I guess the need to elaborate further on the substance of relations between the Taleban and Pakistan ends when an authoritative Pakistani newspaper like The News, commenting on its government decision to boycott the Bonn Conference after the raid, plainly states that ‘Needless to say, Pakistan’s absence from the conference will be a major setback to US-led efforts to bring the Taliban to the dialogue table.’ (read here)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020