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Afghan President's Comments Highlight Frustration in Kabul and Islamabad

By Gary Thomas
16 June 2008

Afghanistan's president has threatened to send troops after Taliban militants who take sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan. Analysts say the threat is somewhat hollow. But, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, it does increase the danger of a miscalculation along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Analysts discount that President Hamid Karzai would actually be able to follow through on his threat to dispatch troops into Pakistan in hot pursuit of Islamic militant fighters. They point out that the Afghan National Army is still relatively weak and that most military and security functions in Afghanistan are handled by NATO forces.

Hilary Synnott, a former British ambassador to Pakistan, also says the NATO security forces policing Afghanistan would try to head off any such action.

"All of us - Britain, the United States - would try and discourage any actual incursion as President Karzai has referred to," said Synnott. "So I see this more as a means of getting pressure on Pakistan to do more to control the Taliban in an area which is very difficult to control."

Nevertheless, tensions between Islamabad and Kabul have been rising over the issue of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal region along the border. Alexander Neill, director of the Asian Security Program at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London, says the increasing tension is dangerous.

"There could be the potential for miscalculation," he said. "So if Frontier Corps, Pakistani Frontier Corps, perhaps if in the dead of night they were rather tired from keeping constant watch, if A.N.A. [Afghan National Army] troops were mistaken for militants on the way through, and they opened fire, for example - this is the sort of thing that could escalate very, very quickly. And it is a burning issue in Islamabad as much as it is in Kabul."

President Karzai's comments underscore the frustration felt by many U.S. and Afghan officials over the safe havens that have allowed the Taliban, al-Qaida, and allied Islamic militant fighters to regroup.

Speaking in London Monday, President Bush called for closer cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan to lower the temperature.

"Obviously it's a testy situation there," he said. "And if I'm the president of a country and people are coming from one country to another -- allegedly coming from one country to another -- to kill innocent civilians on my side, I'd be concerned about it. But we can help. We can help calm the situation down and develop a strategy that will prevent these extremists from, you know, from developing safe haven and having freedom of movement."

But the issue of national sovereignty is a very sensitive one in Pakistan, and any talk of hot pursuit across the border infuriates Islamabad. A recent U.S. airstrike along the border that U.S. officials say was aimed at militants attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan killed 11 Frontier Corps troops. That set off a firestorm in Islamabad. Alexander Neill says a senior Pakistani officer just told him that he viewed the incident as a blatant act of aggression. Neill says such views are now growing among Pakistan's military.

"It does appear that some of this resentment has percolated to the surface in Islamabad, and senior Pakistani officers and retired officers are really showing no restraint in expressing their animosity towards U.S. activities in the border areas, but also [towards] Afghan activities, Afghan National Army activities," he said.

Hilary Synnott, now a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, says the pressure to get Pakistan to do more to curb cross-border militant activity is, to some extent, having the opposite effect.

"The difficulty is, the paradox is, the more the United States is seen to criticize the new government, the less the new government will be able to be seen as cooperating with the United States because of the United States' unpopularity in Pakistan," said Synnott.

The Pakistan government has been trying to arrange peace deals with tribal leaders to curb militant activity in their areas but some U.S. officials, as well as a recent RAND Corporation study, have said they actually fuel cross-border activity by the militants.

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