By Hafizullah Gardesh and Mina Habib
Rockets continued to fall on Afghanistan’s Kunar province in July, as arguments raged over who was behind the barrage.
Senior Afghan officials pointed the finger at the Pakistani military, saying that only Islamabad had access to the munitions used.
Pakistan has denied the allegation, while the United States Defence Department and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, have indicated that insurgents may be to blame.
On July 20, rockets killed three men and a woman in Kunar province, according to the Afghan foreign ministry. On July 22 and 23, nearly 400 rockets were fired from Pakistani territory into Kunar’s Dangam district. More have fallen since.
Kabul has previously threatened to refer Islamabad to the United Nations Security Council if the bombardment, which began in May, does not stop. (See Afghans Say Pakistan Behind Cross Border Fire.)
Kunar provincial governor Fazlullah Wahedi said nearly 2,000 rockets had landed in recent months. As well as killing civilians, the attacks had displaced hundreds of families.
“The central government should address this issue seriously. The bombardment has made the public very anxious,” Wahedi told local media.
This week, Afghanistan’s interior minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi and army chief-of-staff Sher Mohammad Karimi, appeared before the Meshrano Jirga, or upper house of parliament, to discuss the Kunar attacks.
Mohammadi presented photographs of munitions that had landed and claimed that only the Pakistani military possessed armaments of this type, including 155-mm artillery shells.
Karimi assured senators that the Pakistani military was behind the shelling, and claimed the assault was intended to pressure Kabul into accepting the Durand Line, a poorly-defined border established by an 1893 agreement. Kabul does not recognise the line, which Pakistan would like to see formalised as the official frontier.
Karimi also questioned why the US was not doing more to address the situation.
“I don’t know why the Americans are ignoring this issue,” he told the Meshrano Jirga. “Maybe the Americans are afraid because Pakistan has nuclear weapons, or maybe they are old friends and [America] doesn’t want to clash with them.”
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman George Little said America was working closely with Afghanistan and Pakistan to try and limit violence along the border. Little suggested that insurgents were to blame, according to press reports on July 25.
“We have obviously been in constant contact with the Afghan government to work on these issues and we have put pressure on the enemy that operates along the border,” Little told a press conference in Washington.
The US embassy in Kabul declined to comment on the issue, saying it fell within ISAF’s remit.
On July 24, ISAF condemned what it called “cross-border insurgent indirect-fire attacks” and said it was working with the Afghan defence ministry and the Pakistani government to stop them.
The Pakistani embassy in Kabul has denied any state involvement in the attacks. Embassy press officer Akhtar Munir said insurgents operating on either side of the border could be firing the rockets in the hope that Afghans would blame Pakistan.
Kunar is mountainous and heavily forested, and borders Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, over which Islamabad has limited control.
Officials in Islamabad have accused insurgents of staging attacks into Pakistan from Kunar. They say the Pakistani Taleban have found refuge in parts of eastern Afghanistan from which most Afghan and American forces have withdrawn over the last two years, and are now using the area as a springboard for cross-border attacks, according to a New York Times report.
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported on July 24 that “terrorists” had launched 15 attacks from Kunar and Nuristan provinces against Pakistani border posts and villages over the last year. The newspaper claimed that 105 soldiers and civilians had been killed in the attacks.
Kabul has largely confined its response to the shelling to formal diplomatic channels.
President Hamid Karzai and the incoming Pakistani prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf told a press conference in Kabul in July that they had discussed the attacks, though a more junior Afghan official was left to issue a sterner public statement.
Jawed Ludin, deputy foreign minister for political affairs, conveyed Kabul’s “serious concerns” to Pakistani ambassador Mohammad Sadiq on July 22. He warned that the bombardment “would have a significant negative impact on bilateral relations, especially in light of the broad range of important issues related to peace, security and economic cooperation”, according to a foreign ministry statement.
Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi said the administration understood the public’s concerns, but was keen to avoid reacting emotionally to what was a complicated issue,
“We understand our people’s feelings but the issue is very complex…. We are doing whatever is in the country’s national interest,” he said. “Some decisions have been made in this regard and some orders have been issued to the security agencies, but we cannot divulge the details.”
Some Afghans are frustrated that their foreign allies have not done more to stand up for Afghanistan, especially after Karzai and US president Barack Obama signed a strategic partnership agreement earlier this year. In the agreement, which paved the way for continued cooperation until 2024, the US said it would view any external aggression against Afghanistan with “grave concern”. (For more on the deal, see Afghan Parliament Approves US Partnership.)
Faizi said Afghan officials had raised the Kunar bombardment several times in meetings with senior NATO and ISAF officials, while interior ministry spokesman Mohammad Sediq Sediqi confirmed that officials had presented evidence of Pakistan’s alleged involvement to their foreign allies.
But according to an official in the presidential office, the commander of ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, remains unconvinced. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said Allen had told the Afghan authorities several times that they lacked sufficient proof of Pakistani involvement.
The official said that while the situation was very complicated, the US and NATO were displaying “negligence and ignorance” regarding the attacks.
Atiqullah Amarkhel, a defence expert and retired general, said a stronger government in Kabul might have lobbied more successfully for western help. He added that the US was heavily reliant on Pakistan’s support in Afghanistan, which might make it reluctant to accuse Islamabad of involvement.
On July 31 the US and Pakistan signed a deal on shipments of supplies to the international forces in Afghanistan, prompting Washington to release over one billion dollars in frozen military aid, the Associated Press reported. This ended a crisis that began in November 2011 when Islamabad closed its borders to freight for NATO troops in Afghanistan, after American airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Wahid Mozhda, an Afghan political analyst, said that even if it knew Islamabad was implicated in the shelling, Washington might be reluctant to confront it given its reliance on the transit route.
“The… least expensive transit route for American troops here in the region goes through Pakistan. The US needs Pakistan to achieve its long-term goals in the region,” Mozhda said. “I am confident that with the technology at their disposal, the Americans know where the rockets coming into Afghanistan are being fired from, but they don’t want to upset Pakistan,” he said.
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s Afghanistan editor. Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kabul. This article was published at IWPR’s ARR Issue 437.