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Cross-border tensions grow in Nangarhar

Abdul Rahim Momand
Civilians and Afghan Army personnel warn of a rise in Pakistan's military activity on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. By arming insurgent militias and sending its generals to oversee operations against Afghan…
11.09.2014  |  Nangarhar Province
Afghan soldiers patrol near the Af-Pak border in Nangarhar province. Photos: Mirwais Rahmani
Afghan soldiers patrol near the Af-Pak border in Nangarhar province. Photos: Mirwais Rahmani

A convoluted intelligence war is brewing on the Afghan side of the Af-Pak border, Afghan sources told Afghanistan Today. Although Pakistan denies involvement and NATO forces active in the region point to a slight drop-off in hostilities, Afghan security officials believe Pakistani intervention is fueling a surge in Taliban insurgency and fomenting regional diplomatic distrust.

 The Pakistani Taliban gained new ground in Nangarhar province in a series of surprise attacks of Sesarat district led by some 2,000 insurgents at the end of Ramadan, and has since staged at least two more offensives, Afghan government and military sources told Afghanistan Today.

 Ten trucks full of Pakistani Army soldiers and insurgents arrived in the Mountains of Hesarak last month to plan and carry out new waves of fighting, said district governor Hajji Abdul Haq.

 The presence of Pakistan Army generals on the Afghan side of the border is nothing new, Haq says. “They sit down with their personnel in homes and plan fighting strategies.”

 The aim of these operations was to gain control over Shirzard District of Nangarhar province as well the Arzah district of Logar province, Haq says. So far, these operations have been unsuccessful. “When the insurgents failed to gain ground in Hesarak, they announced a bounty of 80 thousand Pakistani Rupees for each outpost a group of fighters take over,” according to Haq.

 Security officials in Nangarhar said the presence of foreign fighters in the insurgency has doubled in recent weeks. The armed insurgency suffered 204 causalities during recent fighting in Shirzad, Khogyanee and Hesarak districts of Nangarhar province, said Brigadier General Fazel Ahmad Shirzad, head of the security directorate in Nangarhar. Some 145 insurgents, including 23 Pakistani nationals from Waziristan, were killed in the one-week operation, he added. Another 95 fighters, including 15 Pakistanis, were wounded in the attacks. Four other insurgents were arrested.

 ”More than half of the fighters are Pakistani Army Soldiers,” says Dr. Mohammad Naim Wallar, head of the Hesarak District tribal council. “They speak Urdu and Punjabi, force farmers to pay taxes and shepherds to give sheep. They have soured the life of our people.”

 According to Wallar, the fighters come from regiments based in Bajawor and Waziristan. After Hesarak, they aim to destabilize the Nangarhar districts of Shirzard, Batti Kot and Shinwari, he said.

Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal, a political affairs analyst, believes that NATO forces cannot acknowledge the presence of Pakistani soldiers in Nanagarhar because it would be an admission that a neighboring country invaded Afghanistan. This would oblige NATO and particularly U.S forces to honor its agreement with Afghan government forces and respond militarily against Pakistan.

 Wolesmall adds that ongoing military operations in North Waziristan have also contributed to the increase of foreign insurgents in Afghanistan. This conflict amounts to an intelligence war and the Afghan government has to take careful steps to tackle it, he says.

 But despite the red flags raised by Nangarhar locals, the area has actually seen a slight decrease in fighting since this summer, according to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).  

"During this time frame, overall insurgent attacks along Afghanistan’s eastern and southern borders with Pakistan actually decreased by about 5 percent," Maj. Paul L. Greenberg  told Afghanistan Today. "There were 5% less attacks in the July 7 – Sept. 6, 2014 time frame than in the previous two months.  In Nangarhar in particular, insurgent attacks went down about 14 percent."

 This data included statistics for Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktiya, and Zabul provinces, Greenberg added.

Tepid response

Many Afghans, particularly those in eastern region, experience a sense of déjà vu seeing increased efforts by the Pakistani-backed militants in Nangarhar.  Following the withdrawal of Soviet Union troops, the then Pakistani-backed Mujahedeen launched major offensives to capture Nangarhar, a strategic province in the east region in the early 1990s. However, their months-long assault was fended off by Mohammad Najibullah’s regime, which was still armed to teeth with Soviet arms.

 On the eve of Nato's planned military withdrawal from Afghanistan, any military success by insurgents in Nangarhar will send a strong message to the world, particularly to the global jihadists that the Taliban’s victory in the country is imminent. It would demoralize the fledging Afghan security forces and could drastically imbalance the current military equation.

 Last month, President Hamid Karzai chaired a National Security Council meeting about the Nangarhar attacks, says Afghan National Army spokesman General Dowlat Waziri. The meeting also discussed the cases of five Pakistanis arrested during a gunfire fight in Hesarak district. So far, Afghan security forces have not responded militarily.

 Despite the governmen's tepid response, Afghan security and defense officials maintain that Pakistan has been trying to create a new paramilitary force along the Durand Line.

 As NATO forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan is moving in to strengthen its influence in Afghanistan as a bulwark against India, the theory goes. “Pakistan claims that India runs fourteen consulates across Afghanistan, and fourteen thousand Indian advisors are working with the Afghan National Army,” says Abdul Ghafor Liwal, director of the Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan. “These are the things that Pakistan uses to justify its intervention in Afghan affairs.”

 “The Pakistan Army is paying each militia member 30,000 Pakistani Rupees per month and turning the militia against tribal populations on the Afghan side of the Durand Line,” says Defense Ministry spokesman General Dowlat Wazir, citing a recent Afghan Security Council report. Pakistani Army’s movements near the Durand Line have increased, he added. The Afghan National Army continues to watch the developments and is “ready for any kind of action,” Wazir says.

 Mohammad Anwar Sultani, a tribal elder and a political analyst, also believes that Pakistan has formally invaded Afghanistan. ”The increase of Pakistani soldiers and advisors among Afghan insurgents, the firing of rockets from Pakistan into some eastern [Afghan] regions, the killing of civilians are all indications of Pakistan’s open transgression against Afghanistan,” he says.

 “Pakistan has not stopped here,” he adds. “[The government] also started issuing Pakistani ID Cards to Afghan citizens alongside the borderline areas.”

 As the disputes continue, the Taliban continues to terrorize Nangarhar residents, forcing them to flee their homes and head for Jalalabad city. Aseal Khan, from Shirzard district, says that Taliban fighters are entering people’s homes, demanding food and weapons and beating the hosts if they refuse to obey their orders.

 “The Taliban sent someone to our home to tell me to buy them a PK Machine gun,” says one Jalalabad taxi driver. “Drivers who owned large cars asked to buy rocket launchers, while those with smaller cars were asked to buy AK-47s. I was not able to buy the machine gun, so I had to leave my home and relocate to the city.”