Second Opinion: Cross-border Incursions on the Pak-Afghan Border

Approximately a hundred Taliban militants crossed the border from Afghanistan on June 25th and attacked a Pakistani security patrol near Sunai Kandau in Barawal Tehsil, Upper Dir, killing six soldiers and kidnapping seven, who were later beheaded. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the ambush. The Pakistan government lodged a formal complaint with Kabul and demanded greater efforts to prevent “cross border movement of militants into [its] territory.” On 27th June, as many as 500 Afghan families from villages adjoiningthe border had to escape mortar shelling from the Pakistani side. As protests were held in Kabul against perceived “attacks” from Pakistan, the ISAF military spokesperson stated that it was “imperative that all sides stand cognisant of the importance of mutual cooperation” in working out a solution to address cross border militancy. Meanwhile, on 2nd June, Kabul stated that it will take the matter up at the United Nations Security Council if issue is not resolved diplomatically.

Second Opinion asked policy experts their view of the border security situation and the downturn in diplomatic relations between Kabul and Islamabad. Cross border incursions have led to a deterioration of diplomatic ties since 2011.

Islamabad’s response to Kabul on the Monday raid

Defence analyst Lt. Gen. (retd) Talat Masood sees this as similar to an American accusation against Pakistan: having militant sanctuaries on its soil. “The Americans and Afghans have not been able to clear Taliban sanctuaries on the Afghan side of the border and these militants have in turn been launching attacks on us”, he said, adding that the ISAF and U.S. troops appear helpless in establishing security along the Pak-Afghan border area, a matter of great concern for Pakistan.

Imtiaz Gul, Executive Director, Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), concurs with this view and states that such cross-border raids also allow Pakistan to question the NATO-ISAF and Afghan position on terror groups in Afghan territory.

Pakistan’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Rustam Shah Mohmand observed that cross border attacks caused “irritation” but do not indicate a rupture in relations between Islamabad and Kabul. He also added that the Afghan Government can do “very little” in the border region, having lost its strategic hold, even more so after the U.S. military left the area two years ago. He noted that Dir was not an area the Afghan government could give priority to and informed that guerilla tactics and advanced methods of scouting used by the insurgents afforded them military superiority in the area, making it difficult for the coalition and Afghan troops to intercept the militants.

Wajahat S. Khan, Shorenstein Fellow, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University termed Islamabad’s response to Kabul “oblique”. He felt that that diplomatic reactivity was “weak and cautious” in Pakistan and drew parallels between the cross border incursions and Pakistan’s response to the Salala attack of 26th November 2011. “Is this a different Foreign Office, or a different public diplomacy strategy?” he asked and added that the response to the attack showed a shift in Pakistan’s internal political dynamic in which “Islamabad and Rawalpindi want to play this officially, longer and slower”.

Dr. Ashraf Ali, President of the FATA Research Centre (FRC), did not find these attacks a new phenomenon. He felt it was an irony that an armed contingent of 250-300 people could cross the border to attack Pakistani installations in the settled areas of Dir and Chitral, while the U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces blamed Pakistan for having terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries in its tribal areas. According to Dr. Ali, the issue was taken up with ISAF commander General John Allen on his visit to Pakistan on June 27th .

Ensuring security across the Pak-Afghan border

“Pakistan has about 1,100 posts along the Afghan border and the Afghans have nearly 110 posts along the border”, informed Rustam Shah Mohmand, adding that it would be difficult for the Afghan security forces to increase their presence in the border areas, given the dire security threats in their own urban centers. Mr. Mohmand said that Afghanistan needs to further improve and modernise its intelligence-gathering system in the volatile tribal areas on the border and felt that Pakistan’s intelligence mechanisms were functioning better in those areas. He stated that the Monday cross-border attack was an intelligence failure and “merely a measure of our ineptitude”.

Lt. Gen. (retd) Talat Masood urged the need for developing very close coordination between ISAF and Pakistan, and between the U.S., Afghan and Pakistani intelligence services in particular. “This will only be possible if the level of trust and confidence between the two sides is restored,” he said. Currently, he felt that this level of confidence does not exist on part of the U.S., NATO/ISAF or Afghanistan, to bring about the level of coordination necessary to improve security.

Wajahat S. Khan urged both sides to be more conciliatory and reduce the quantity and intensity of allegations hurled at each other. He felt that the “˜center of gravity’ of the border security will keep shifting back and forth, as both “˜sides’ vie for more depth. According to Mr. Khan, the tipping point for reaching conclusive border security will come as the conflict continues and both sides reassess their costs and benefits. Mr. Khan acknowledged that in the process, damages will have to be sustained by both sides and that each player will face consequences that are almost proportionate to their stakes in the conflict.

Imtiaz Gul asserted that there was no way around a determined crackdown on those directly or indirectly jeopardizing Pakistan’s medium to long term security interests.

Offering a parallel view, Dr. Ashraf Ali noted that nothing but a “strong political will and commitment” could ensure security across the Pak-Afghan border, which needs cooperation and coordination on the part of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US. Dr. Ali urged the U.S. to realise Pakistan’s role and contribution as an ally in the War on Terror. He pushed for Pakistan and Afghanistan to give up the blame game and to give peace a chance.

Pak-Afghan Relations: A Dangerous Direction?

Wajahat S. Khan observed that the narrative of safe havens in Pakistan versus safe havens in Afghanistan was bound to shift. Mr. Khan noted the presence of other players like the U.S., India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and especially China, which he believes is becoming more assertive vis-à-vis developments across the Durand Line. He cautioned against adopting the “˜state-sponsor-of-terror’ narrative, and asked if Pakistan will be able to turn this into a match-point and end the “˜safe-havens-here’ narrative. “Will [Pakistan] squander the opportunity to engage in positive public diplomacy?” he asked.

Lt. Gen. (retd) Talat Masood viewed the latest cross-border attack and the diplomatic reactions as negative developments that would not only complicate Pak-Afghan relations but would also have a significant impact on the Pak-U.S. relations. “This will not be helpful at a time when the U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan and at a time when Pakistan’s cooperation is still needed in bringing about peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan,” Mr. Masood said.

Dr. Ashraf Ali did not believe that Pak-Afghan relations were headed in an overall negative direction.”This is, no doubt, a blow to the already strained Pak-Afghan relations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that things will go from bad to worse,” he said, noting that there existed a realisation on both sides of the border it was worth to give peace a chance; he reminded Pakistan and Afghanistan of their shared 2,500-km long border as well as their historical and cultural ties. Dr. Ali added that Pakistan and Afghanistan must stand united against a common enemy in the shape of terrorism. He went on to add that the current security situation does not allow either country to open a war front against the other.

Rustam Shah Mohmand concurred with the view that Pak-Afghan bilateral relations would not be seriously or negatively impacted. “These incidents would continue to happen for a long time to come, but Pakistan and Afghanistan are very close allies of the United States of America and the U.S. would never allow a breach or breakdown of relations between the two countries,” he stated. Mr. Mohmand said that cordial Pak-Afghan ties were in the best interests of the U.S. as well, which is why the ties between the two neighboring countries will remain focused on mutual interests.

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