The Durand Line of Fire

Islamic militants are using eastern Afghanistan as shelter while plotting their attacks against the Pakistani state.

An American soldier on his way back to his outpost from the village of Paspajak, Charkh District, Logar province, Afghanistan, June 20, 2010
An American soldier on his way back to his outpost from the village of Paspajak, Charkh District, Logar province, Afghanistan, June 20, 2010 (US Army)

Over the course of the war, cross border militancy along the disputed Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier has generally streamed from one direction. Fighters loyal to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network rest in Pakistan’s tribal areas and when ready, travel across the porous border into eastern Afghanistan where they launch operations against US, NATO and Afghan government forces. In fact, the cross border flow of militants over the past three years has been such a problem for the United States that its security relationship with Pakistan has been severely jeopardized by the inability or unwillingness of Islamabad to go after every Islamist group residing in its territory. The Afghan government, leery of Pakistan’s interests in the region to begin with, has also claimed that Pakistani authorities are harboring elements of the Afghan insurgency and using them as proxies in their country.

Very rarely during the decade long Afghanistan conflict have Afghan based fighters penetrated into Pakistan with the intent and purpose of attacking Pakistani security checkpoints in the tribal areas. Yet with NATO and Afghan soldiers outside of many villages and towns deep inside Afghanistan’s border provinces, it appears that anti-Pakistani militants have taken the opportunity to insert themselves into the landscape.

According to Pakistani military officials, a group of approximately three hundred fighters from Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan crossed the border and ambushed Pakistani security personnel in the western Pakistani province of Bajaur. While only one Pakistani soldier was killed, the event highlights an increase in Afghan to Pakistan militant activity over the past three weeks. Pakistan says that 56 of its men have been killed during these types of attacks — a low number when compared to the 30,000 casualties that Pakistan has experienced since the War on Terror began but still high given the fact that Afghanistan has not normally been a base for groups who wish to destroy the modern Pakistani state.

Are the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktika and Paktia becoming the Afghan version of Federally Administered Tribal Areas?  Or are these attacks simply the result of a change in the war itself?

Unfortunately, it may be too soon to answer these questions accurately. Like Pakistan’s tribal region, eastern Afghanistan has long been a wild spot for the central authorities in Kabul. Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south may be the birthplace of the Taliban movement but it was in the eastern Afghan provinces of Nuristan and Khost where Osama bin Laden established his Al Qaeda headquarters. Eastern Afghanistan is also the area where Al Qaeda fighters have historically felt the most comfortable.

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the “wild east” has been the linchpin and strategic base for insurgents pursuing a specific change against the status quo. Whether during the Soviet occupation, the Afghan civil war in the 1990s or the current NATO occupation, Afghan insurgents and foreign fighters from all over the world have found the area to be especially conductive to their agenda. The mountainous terrain, deep crevices and dense foliage during the spring and summer months virtually assure militant commanders of a certain amount of protection that they can count on. Some of the same Pashto tribes that make Afghanistan home also straddle the Durand Line into Pakistan, a social lubricant that makes it far easier for militants to travel to and from eastern Afghanistan without getting killed or captured.

On a more strategic level, eastern Afghanistan enables the insurgents to plan and eventually execute attacks close to, or in the center of, the capital city. The fact that the Haqqani network was reportedly behind the Intercontinental Hotel siege that killed twelve people is therefore not surprising. The Haqqanis retain a significant base of support in Paktia, Paktika and Khost, areas that are only a few hundred miles outside of the Kabul city limits.

The Tehrik i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that has launched hundreds of brazen strikes against the Pakistani state, may have decided that eastern Afghanistan is a far more preferential base of operations that the FATA — a territory increasingly under the supervision of the Pakistani military and under fire from American drone aircraft.

Ultimately, speculation that the TTP is using Afghanistan as a resting place is just that — speculation. The world may never know what is truly going on along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border until the Afghan security forces redeploy and retain full control over the area, a doubtful proposition at best. But with militants now streaming in both directions, one thing is certain. Regardless of which militant organization is responsible, NATO’s job just got a little more difficult. More importantly, bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are now strained at a higher level.