Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Pakistan and Afghanistan: strategic allies or sworn enemies?
The armies of Afghanistan and Pakistan exchanged artillery firing across their border this week in which the Pakistan military said it had lost a soldier while several others including civilians were wounded. Newspaper reports in Pakistan speak of at least three Afghan soldiers killed in the clash near Angoor Adda in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region.
It isn’t new, there was a clash last week when an Afghan militia attacked a Pakistan border post in the Lower Dir district, according to the Pakistani media, in which 14 security personnel were killed besides a large number of the Afghan militiamen.
But the latest flareup at the disputed border is interesting because it comes at a time when Pakistan is not only trying to mend fences with Afghanistan, but is also said to be seeking a three-way strategic partnership involving Kabul, Beijing and itself and keeping the United States out over the long term.
Indeed as the Wall Street Journal reported, Pakistan’s leaders told their Afghan counterpart this month that America had failed them both and that the only durable relationship could be with its two neighbours – Pakistan and China. Pakistan has rejected the report as groundless, but given the strained ties with the United States, it has gained traction, striking a chord among those who are convinced that the United States and Pakistan are on a path of confrontation.
But if Pakistan is seeking to soften up the Afghans, it looks like it has a mountain to climb. The leak itself of its overtures to President Hamid Karzai is said to have come from Afghan officials keen to remain on America’s side. Besides embarrassing Pakistan, it can only increase the distrust the neighbours have long held for each other.
And on the ground, incidents such as Wednesday when the Afghan army is said to have lobbed 70 shells at a border post near Angoor Adda causing damage to a market there can only increase anger in Pakistan, which is unlikely to accept such aggression from a neighbour considered part of its sphere of influence. It has called for a flag meeting, reflecting the seriousness of the situation.
Last month there was another incident in what Afghan analyst Joshua Foust calls “The undeclared AfPAK War.” The Pakistani military fired shells in a residential part of Goshta in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangahar province killing a civilian.
For the last several years the two militaries have lobbed shells at each other in the manner in which India and Pakistan used to excsnge gunfire across the military control line in Kashmir until a ceasefire in 2003, although the frequency and the intensity was much less. Foust estimates in a piece for Foreign Policy the clashes on the Af-Pak border to be no more than a dozen, with perhaps a dozen killed.
But the frequency has picked up in recent months, with Afghan officials reporting a dozen cross-border firings over a one-month stretching from mid-February.
Is there a pattern then ? Are the players already flexing their muscles, drawing lines in the sand as the United States begins a gradual withdrawal of forces from July. Some of the reports in the Pakistani press suggest that the Afghan National Army couldn’t have acted on its own when unleashing the mortar barrage and that its U.S. patrons may have provided some assistance. Others have spoken of NATO helicopters in the area.
Angoor Adda is the site of the first reported ground operation by U.S.-led foreign troops in Pakistani territory in September 2008 which drew strong condemnation from Pakistan and a threat of retaliation. It is one of the few easy passages across the mountainous border, and one of two between the Afghan province of Paktika and Pakistan’s Waziristan.