U.S. Sees Increased Taliban Threat In 2007
By Ahto Lobjakas
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (file photo)
January 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Recently appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned NATO's Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that the threat posed by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan may increase in 2007.
Gates and de Hoop Scheffer, who met today at NATO headquarters in Brussels, also discussed the NATO training mission in Iraq. After the meeting, the U.S. secretary of defense also explained recent moves by Washington to expand the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.
Gates and de Hoop Scheffer spent much of their meeting discussing the resurgent Taliban threat in Afghanistan, as the U.S. defense secretary confirmed to reporters.
"One of the subjects we have been talking about was the increased level of violence last year and some indications that the Taliban want to increase the level of violence in 2007."
"One of the subjects we have been talking about was the increased level of violence last year and some indications that the Taliban want to increase the level of violence in 2007," Gates said.
Gates said the International Stability and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, spearheaded by NATO, is a model of the alliance's potential, adding that success in Afghanistan remains NATO's "top priority."
De Hoop Scheffer reiterated his call for broader international action in the country.
"We spent of course some time on Afghanistan where it first of all is important that NATO delivers, that NATO lives up to expectations, that it is important that we embark on a comprehensive strategy, and that means the involvement -- you know my mantra 'full involvement of the international community': first of all of NATO, but also of the Afghan government and the international community as a whole," de Hoop Scheffer said.
At their Riga summit in November 2006, NATO leaders urged the European Union in particular to step up its support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Gates, for his part, said an increased civilian response must complement the military operations in the country.
De Hoop Scheffer said he and Gates also broached the NATO training mission in Iraq in their talks this morning, adding he hopes the operation can be expanded soon.
"We also discussed Iraq and the NATO training mission in Iraq, which is running well," de Hoop Scheffer said. "I would hope that the training mission can be expanded in the near future, that is at least the wish of the Iraqi government."
NATO is involved in training, equipping, and providing technical assistance to Iraqi security forces, but not in combat operations.
Staunch Over Iran
At the press conference that followed his meeting with the NATO secretary-general, Gates also briefly explained the recent tougher U.S. stance toward Iran. He said the decision to send another aircraft carrier to the region, as well as other moves, stem from a long-standing U.S. policy which sees the area as "vital" to the long term interests of the United States.
"We are simply reaffirming that statement of the importance of the Gulf region to the United States, and our determination to be an ongoing, strong presence in that area for a long time into the future," Gates said.
Gates said that Iran is currently playing a "very negative" role in Iraq and in the wider region appearing to believe the United States has its hands full in Iraq.
However, Gates said the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is ready to meet her Iranian counterpart for direct talks as soon as Tehran puts a stop to its uranium enrichment program.
Border Dispute Takes Toll On Security
By Amin Tarzi
January 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz paid a visit to Kabul on January 4 to discuss Islamabad's decision to fence and mine parts of their mutual border, among other issues. His host, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, restated his country's "very clear" opposition to such a move, saying it "will not prevent terrorist activities, but will divide peoples and tribes."
A Pakistani military spokesman more than three years ago announced that his country was installing border reinforcements at strategic points to prevent remnants of Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces from crossing into Afghanistan.
Told of Afghan media reports suggesting the fence would go ahead without so much as informing Kabul, the spokesman responded bluntly that "Pakistan does not need the permission from any other country to take security measures on [its] border specifically aimed at countering the scourge of terror."
Demarcate First, Plan Later
At a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice two years later, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf divulged a plan to construct the border fence. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri said at the time that Islamabad's plan was aimed at undermining claims that Pakistan was not doing enough to curb cross-border terrorism. An Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman responded to Musharraf's plan by saying that Kabul and Islamabad needed to demarcate the border under international law before there could be any discussion of a barrier.
The issue of "Pashtunistan" has brought Afghanistan and Pakistan to the brink of war on more than one occasion, and it has drained Afghanistan's economy and cost it political capital.
When Islamabad recently announced its intention to implement the plan to partially fence and mine the border, Afghan reaction was negative based on three factors.
The first was Afghanistan's legacy as one of the most mined countries on the globe, noting that new mines would inevitably kill and maim innocent people. The second was the assertion that fences and mines would separate Pashtun tribes living astride the border.
The third was the argument that the problem of terrorism lies not simply along the border area, but rather with those who finance, equip, and train the terrorists -- and in Kabul's eyes, Pakistan has proved to be a primary source of support for those seeking to destabilize Afghanistan.
While the official Pakistani response to Kabul's objections has been diplomatic, Pakistani commentators have been less subtle. In an editorial on December 28, the Islamabad-based daily "The News" wrote that "if anything, Pakistan's plan to mine and fence the frontier is a response to the shrill propaganda from Kabul that Islamabad is 'not doing enough' to stop the entry of terrorists across the border into Afghanistan."
Afghans waiting to cross into Pakistan (epa)
The daily argued that "if it doesn't like the plan, the Karzai government ought to come up with an effective solution." "At the same time," the paper said, "it should try harder to seal the cross-border routes of terrorists and saboteurs into Pakistan." That last point refers to longstanding charges by Islamabad that Afghanistan is allowing its territory to be used by Indian agents and New Delhi-supported subversive elements, especially in Baluchistan Province.
The initial point raised by the "The News" presents a tough challenge for Kabul, and it gets to the crux not only of the issue of Pakistan's alleged desire to destabilize the Karzai administration, but also of why Afghanistan has so adamantly opposed any formal demarcation of the boundary.
As the editorial suggests, Islamabad has raised the issue of fencing and mining the border largely as a political countermeasure to charges that Pakistan has failed to prevent cross-border movement by terrorists. If that were the case, one might expect Kabul to welcome such a measure; if terrorists are trained in Pakistan, then barriers to their entry should be viewed as a step in the right direction, even if such a move does not appear to have been made in good faith.
But for Kabul, neither the current cross-border activities nor the stability of Afghanistan would appear to trump the issue of the status of the border -- referred to by the Afghan side as the "Durand Line" after the foreign secretary of British India who set it out.
The history of the Durand Line goes back to the Treaty of Gandumak, signed in May 1879 between British Major Louis Cavagnari and Afghan Amir Mohammad Yaqub Khan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1879-80. According to provisions of the Gandumak agreement, the British were to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and control its foreign policy. Also, Britain was granted jurisdictional control of the three strategically significant frontier districts of Kurram, Sibi, and Pishin.
When the Gandumak plan failed to achieve peace, however the British opted to leave Afghanistan while ensuring that it remained a buffer state between their own Indian empire and the Russian empire in Central Asia.
When Abd al-Rahman became amir in 1880, Afghanistan's boundaries were not demarcated. The British sought at the time to keep the Russians out of -- and the amir inside -- a geographically defined Afghanistan.
Afghan soldiers watch as Pakistani soldiers go on alert in December (epa)
Article 4 of the Durand Agreement states that the "frontier line will hereafter be laid down in detail and demarcated, wherever this may be practicable and desirable, by Joint British and Afghan Commissioners, whose object will be to arrive by mutual understanding at a boundary which shall adhere with the greatest possible exactness" to the agreed map, and "have due regard to the existing local rights of villages adjoining the frontier."
So while the agreement set the limits of the territories of Afghanistan and British India on paper, the entire border was not actually demarcated at that time.
The issue of the Durand Line became thornier after 1947, when British India was split into two independent states: India and Pakistan. Afghanistan -- deep into its own search for identity and the formation of a nationalistic agenda -- called for the right of self-determination for ethnic Pashtuns inhabiting the region between the Durand Line and the Indus River.
This became known, at least in Kabul, as the "Pashtunistan" policy, and it effectively alienated Afghanistan from its new neighbor, Pakistan. On official Afghan maps at the time, the country's boundary with Pakistan was marked as disputed.
The issue of "Pashtunistan" has brought Afghanistan and Pakistan to the brink of war on more than one occasion, and it has drained Afghanistan's economy and cost it political capital.
For Pakistan, the existence of two hostile neighbors -- Afghanistan and India -- became a source of great concern. Although Kabul eventually opted to stay out of all the Indo-Pakistani wars, the possibility of having to fight simultaneously on two fronts has prompted Pakistan to try to intimidate the weaker of those threats, Afghanistan, continuously over the years.
Arguably, Islamabad's golden chance to reduce the real or perceived Afghan threat came when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Although Pakistan was initially viewed as the next step in the Soviet march toward the "warm waters" of the Indian Ocean, the Soviets got bogged down in Afghanistan. That occurred with the help of mainly Pakistan-based resistance groups.
Finally, Islamabad could envisage a friendly post-Soviet Afghanistan, if not its own satellite state. The quest for an Islamabad-friendly government in Kabul manifested itself in the person of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other resistance leaders, all the way to the formation of the Taliban in 1994.
The state-run Kabul daily "Anis," reflecting a long-held view of Afghan governments, commented recently that "the Durand border has been one of Pakistan's most basic concerns since its establishment."
The paper went on to argue that "the British Empire imposed the border [on] Abd al-Rahman Khan 114 years ago and [said that] in doing so, it cut off part of the Afghan territory and added it to British India." "Anis" accused Pakistan of knowingly "acting against an absolute right of the Afghans" and vowed that "one day when Afghans are mighty, they will surely reclaim that part of their territory."
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered from mutual misjudgments over the past five decades. Kabul and Islamabad are playing an old hand that has already been overplayed, and the result threatens to hearten terrorists and their allies on both sides of the border.
Unfortunately, international terrorism will reap the benefits until Pakistan accepts Afghanistan as a sovereign state -- one not subservient to Islamabad's demands -- and Kabul begins to concentrate on events inside its own borders.
Major Battle Reignites Pakistan Border Controversy
By Ron Synovitz
U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan earlier this year (file photo)
January 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan saw its bloodiest battle in months overnight when NATO and Afghan troops spotted two groups of militants mainly within Pakistan and then tracked them as they crossed into Afghanistan's southeastern Paktika Province.
The NATO alliance says as many as 150 insurgents were killed during an overnight battle in southeastern Afghanistan after the insurgents crossed into the country from neighboring Pakistan.
Infiltration From Pakistan
NATO spokesman Major Dominic Whyte told RFE/RL that both NATO and Afghan government troops witnessed two groups of militants concentrating inside of Pakistan. He says the militants were tracked from the air and by ground forces as they crossed the border into the Bermel district of Afghanistan's Paktika Province.
"It's very unusual to have had so many insurgents gather into one place on the other side of the border and then to cross over. So one assumes that they had commanders."
"It's very unusual to have had so many insurgents gather into one place on the other side of the border and then to cross over. So one assumes that they had commanders.""Initial battle damage estimates indicate that as many as 150 insurgents were killed," he said. "The insurgents were observed congregating together in a large number in several trucks and they were armed and appeared to be gathering for a potential attack. The insurgents had been observed gathering in Pakistan itself and, indeed, had actually crossed the border [into Afghanistan.]"
Whyte says both NATO and Afghan troops were involved in what he described as a "series of running battles."
"The air strikes were conducted by fixed-wing aircraft who were brought onto target by ground forces," he said. "We also employed artillery to target the insurgents."
The Afghan Defense Ministry issued a more conservative estimate on casualties, saying about 80 militants are thought to have been killed. Television footage from the battlefield showed the bodies of dozens of young men gathered together in one location.
NATO says Pakistani military liaison officers were kept fully informed during the operation. Whyte says it appears highly unlikely that any of the dead are civilians.
"The combination of using footage from the fixed-wing aircraft and the troops on the ground provides us with a fairly wide-ranging picture of what happened both before the operation and after it," he said. "There will, obviously, be follow-up operations of troops moving through those areas to provide a final confirmation of the initial estimates. The incident itself took place in a very remote and mountainous part of the country -- sparsely populated -- and our initial estimates include only casualties to the insurgents themselves."
Afghan anger about the infiltration of Taliban militants from Pakistan has damaged relations between Kabul and Islamabad.
Pakistan had repeatedly assured Afghanistan it would take action to stop cross-border infiltrations. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month leveled his strongest criticism at Pakistan over the issue -- openly accusing state elements in Pakistan of supporting the insurgents.
Proof For Pakistani Government?
Islamabad rejects allegations that Taliban leaders are using Pakistan as a base of operations. Pakistan has said in the past that such reports are "unsubstantiated" and that forces operating within Afghanistan should do more to curb the insurgents there.
The NATO spokesman says the latest battle strongly suggests that Taliban leaders are sheltering within Pakistan, though it is not absolute proof.
"It's very unusual to have had so many insurgents gather into one place on the other side of the border and then to cross over," he said. "So one assumes that they had commanders. But at the moment, we have no idea whether there was any particular high-level [coordination or assistance]. The fact is that they came over the border, they were attacked, and a very high level of casualties [were] inflicted."
Some observers say NATO's aerial footage of the incident could lead to increased pressure on Pakistan to stop cross-border incursions.
U.S. Official To Pakistan
Richard Boucher, assistant U.S. secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is due to travel to Pakistan for talks that he expects to include Pakistan's plan to fence and lay mines on parts of the border to stop infiltration.
Kabul opposes the plan, saying fences and mines would unfairly divide ethnic Pashtun communities that straddle both sides of the border -- which is a British colonial-era demarcation that Kabul does not recognize.
Boucher said in Kabul today that questions remain about what more can be done. "The issue to us is control of the border and control of the border area," he said.
Boucher said Washington thinks Islamabad is genuinely committed to battling militancy within Pakistan.
But UN officials have said in recent days that Pakistan needs to take more action against leaders of the Taliban who are on Pakistani territory.
Local Taliban Defeat Raises Hopes For Dam Project
By Ron Synovitz
Kajaki Dam, which lies near the source of the Helmand River (USAID photo)
January 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- NATO forces in Afghanistan say the destruction of a Taliban camp in Helmand Province has cleared the way for repairs on a major hydroelectric dam. Work was halted in 2006 due to resurgent Taliban violence, but engineers from USAID now hope to upgrade the Kajaki Dam and its electrical transmission lines to provide a reliable source of power for nearly 2 million people in southern Afghanistan.
The British military operation targeting Taliban fighters in the northern part of Helmand Province began on January 1.
After about a week, NATO officials announced that they had killed a local commander of insurgents who have been stalling a multimillion-dollar repair project on Kajaki Dam's electricity-producing turbines, which lies near the source of the Helmand River. Worker Safety
NATO-ISAF spokesman Dominic Whyte tells RFE/RL the alliance is confident that it can keep the area safe for construction workers and engineers who must live in a campsite near the dam.
"The Kajaki Dam is a critical part of the infrastructure necessary for the redevelopment of Afghanistan," Whyte says. "ISAF forces operating in the area are patrolling to ensure the security of the wider area itself so that the necessary reconstruction work can take place. We do have troop locations -- forward operating bases. We also employ mobile patrols."
James Franckiewicz, director of USAID's Office of Infrastructure, Engineering, and Energy in Afghanistan, tells RFE/RL that Taliban fighters managed to stop all work at the dam site for more than half a year.
"We've been on hold for about six or seven months right now," Franckiewicz says. "We had a subcontractor that was due to go into Kajaki at the site to start working in May ; they were unable to get access. In fact, they demobilized everyone aside from the security people back in the summer of 2006."
Franckiewicz explains that the halt of reconstruction work was a direct result of resurgent Taliban violence in Helmand Province.
Workers on the Kajaki Dam reconstruction project in November 2004 (USAID photo)
"The insurgency around the camp spiked last summer  and got much worse," Franckiewicz says. "A lot of the workers deserted out of the site after the increased violence. They started receiving mortar rounds fairly regularly. And one of the conditions that USAID had put out is that the coalition had to stabilize the area -- a perimeter about three to five kilometers around our campsite -- in order to stop the incoming mortar rounds. The military has been focusing on this area for a while and those mortar rounds pretty much died away during the last couple of months."
There are three key parts to USAID's reconstruction project at Kajaki that Franckiewicz hopes will be completed by the summer of 2009 -- the upgrade of electricity-generating equipment, the installation of new power-transmission lines, and the construction of a road linking the Kajaki Dam site to Afghanistan's main ring road.
He says he expects workers back at the dam in February to start repairing damage to one of Kajaki's existing two turbines. The workers also plan to install a new, third turbine -- which already is being shipped to Afghanistan. Obstacles To Delivery
When work on the turbines is finished, Kajaki's electricity-generating capacity will be more than double its current level. But servicing the infrastructure, and carrying all of that electricity to the nearby cities of Lashkar-Gah and Kandahar, is impossible on roads and transmission lines destroyed by decades of war.
"The existing transmission line is in poor shape -- and we're going to be rehabilitating the transmission line," Franckiewicz says. "There is about 190 kilometers of transmission line that we are going to build down there. And we're going to build about 90 kilometers of access road from the main regional ring road up to Kajaki Dam site. The upgrade of the hydro-electric plant and the transmission line will give a reliable electricity supply for both Lashkar-Gah and Kandahar and a few villages that will be services along the transmission line."
Franckiewicz says building the new transmission line will take longer than upgrading the dam's hydroelectric stations.
"We're assuming as long as the security situation stabilizing and that we get cooperation from the coalition forces, we're going to have the contractors mobilized in February and we're going to finish the hydroelectric in 2007 -- by the end of this year," Franckiewicz says. "I would guess [it will be] around the summer of 2009 before the transmission line and road construction is completed." 200,000 Households Await
If all goes according to plan, the project will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Afghanistan's volatile southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
"What we have as total beneficiaries in this area that will benefit from the Kajaki upgrade is 1.7 million inhabitants," Franckiewicz says. "And we figure, just on the basis of approximately eight people per household, that there [are] about 200,000 households. I would assume you're probably looking at somewhere from 30 to 50 percent of the people with their lightbulb power on in their residence. That's what is available now. And what we're looking at as possible, when we get this thing up and running, we assume that all of the households, businesses, and government are going to be able to have power for their basic needs."
NATO-ISAF spokesman Whyte admits that it will be more difficult for NATO forces to protect the power transmission lines from Taliban attacks than it is to project the dam site itself.
But Whyte says he hopes the benefits of an improved Kajaki Dam convince ordinary Afghans that it is in their best interest to cooperate with Afghan and NATO security forces who protect the system.