By Tim Lister
The mistaken NATO air attack on Pakistani military outposts at the weekend, in which 24 soldiers were killed, was an accident waiting to happen.
The border between Pakistan and the Afghan province of Kunar is probably the most volatile of the entire 1,500-mile frontier that divides the two countries. It is rugged, remote and home to a variety of insurgent groups – including the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani), al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and the Hezbi Islami Group run by veteran warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In the words of one Afghan analyst, Kunar represents "the perfect storm."
In addition to the sheer number of insurgents in Kunar, the border with Pakistan – amid peaks and ravines – is not clearly marked, and in some places disputed.
Nor was it the first such accident. On June 10th 2008, US troops and their Afghan allies engaged Taliban fighters some 200 yards inside Afghanistan – along the same stretch of border. Grainy video from a U.S. surveillance drone that day showed a half-dozen Taliban retreating into what the US military said was Pakistani territory. Several air strikes followed using precision bombs. The U.S. military insisted none hit any structure. But Pakistan maintained eleven soldiers were killed and described the attack as "completely unprovoked and cowardly."
That incident took place in daylight; the firefight at the weekend was at night. And since 2008, the border between Kunar and the Pakistani tribal agency of Mohmand has become even more violent. Attempts by U.S. forces to build combat outposts close to the border have provoked firefights lasting several hours; resupply convoys are greeted with roadside IEDs and ambushes.
To further complicate the picture, Pakistani forces frequently fire artillery into Kunar against Pakistani Taliban elements who use Afghan territory. At least one senior Pakistan Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah, is said to take refuge in Kunar after being driven out of Pakistan's Swat Valley in 2009.
In June, Pakistani shells hit a number of Afghan homes in eastern Kunar, killing several people, including two children. The barrage prompted the Afghan Defense Ministry to warn that "Pakistan should understand that there will be a reaction for killing of Afghan citizens." The Pakistani government alleged that NATO helicopters had destroyed a military outpost in response to the shelling. But the shelling has continued.
This part of the border is of growing importance to insurgent groups, especially since the allied offensive in southern Afghanistan has pushed them out of parts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces. They use Pakistani territory for resupply and as a rear base out of reach of allied forces. After withdrawing from isolated valleys in Kunar (including the Korengal valley, where the documentary 'Restrepo' was filmed), NATO has begun to reinforce its presence in this area.
As he left Afghanistan in July, General David Petraeus said gains in the south would allow coalition forces to shift their focus to the provinces of the east. To some analysts, that is a case of "too little, too late." In a Carnegie paper titled "Afghanistan: The Impossible Transition," Gilles Dorronsoro argues that "despite a lack of U.S. interest in these regions, their strategic importance is infinitely greater than that of Helmand or even Kandahar.
"The importance of the Eastern Triangle is due to its location between the capital and the Pakistani insurgent sanctuaries, and its importance in facilitating the passage of insurgents from Pakistan," Dorronssoro writes.
Insurgents have also been successful in Kunar in picking off local leaders who have worked with the government and the U.S. In April, one such tribal leader, Malik Zarin, was killed in a suicide bomb attack. A former governor of Kunar and a close associate of President Hamid Karzai, he had been a hero of the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets.
In southern Afghanistan, U.S. forces have invested heavily in a counter-insurgency strategy otherwise known as "clear, hold, build." The "build" part is designed to win over Afghans and sap support for the Taliban. As U.S. forces prepare for a substantial drawdown between next year and 2014, such an ambitious approach is not feasible in the 'wild east' of Afghanistan – although Kunar has in recent years seen multi-million dollar reconstruction projects.
Now the focus is "counter-terrorism," and a large part of the mission is to combat infiltration into Kunar and neighboring Nangahar province from Pakistan. It is a mission fraught with peril, according to many observers, not least because local intelligence is hard to come by in a large area where few troops are on the ground and where insurgent groups have so much influence over the local population. And where many engagements are within a mile of the Pakistani border.