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Oct 14, 2008 | 19:00 GMT

18 mins read

Afghanistan, Pakistan: The Battlespace of the Border

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
The U.S. military has grown increasingly bold in conducting incursions across the Afghan border into Pakistan as it targets al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and tries to interdict jihadist movement into Afghanistan and its strongholds in Pakistan. The border region has thus become a crucial battlespace in the Afghan campaign, and the new head of U.S. Central Command will soon be working with the next U.S. president on a new strategy for that campaign. One way or another, this strategy will have to confront the mounting jihadist insurgency on both sides of the border.
U.S. military cross-border operations from Afghanistan into Pakistan have become increasingly overt and unilateral since the spring. More than a tactical shift, these operations are meant to address the strategic problem of Pakistan's lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where Taliban fighters from Afghanistan rest, recuperate and resupply and where other jihadists mount a growing Islamist insurgency in Pakistan. The next U.S. president will soon be working closely with the new head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, on developing and implementing a new strategy for Afghanistan. This strategy will have to address the situation in Pakistan, where FATA sanctuaries for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are reminiscent of North Vietnamese army sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.


The northern part of the Afghan-Pakistani border is delineated by the Hindu Kush, a western subrange of the Himalayas that is at its highest elevations in the north, where a long and narrow spit of Afghan territory runs all the way to the Chinese border. The Hindu Kush rises above the disputed territory of Kashmir and feeds into the Himalayas, which are the world's tallest mountains. Harsh, rugged terrain that is sparsely populated, the Hindu Kush is all but impassible and therefore useless for logistical purposes. South of the Hindu Kush, the Afghan-Pakistani border begins to follow a ridgeline that drops precipitously to the Khyber Pass. Because Afghanistan is completely unconnected to the rail networks of its neighbors, the road from Peshawar, Pakistan, through the Khyber Pass and on to Jalalabad (and from there to Kabul) is a crucial lifeline for Afghanistan. The border rises up another ridge south of the Khyber and follows a mountain range known as the Safed Koh, which runs north-south, more or less the orientation of the border for several hundred miles. Though still mountainous, this area is rife with passes and trails used for infiltration in both directions — and particularly for moving supplies and fighters west into Afghanistan. Below South Waziristan, the southernmost agency of the FATA, the border cuts westerly over the Toba Kakar range toward the second vital road link across the border, running from Quetta in western Pakistan to Kandahar in southeastern Afghanistan. Known as Balochistan province’s Pashtun corridor (named for the dominant ethno-linguistic group in eastern and southern Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s FATA, North-West Frontier Province [NWFP] and Balochistan province), this sector of the border encompasses an area where STRATFOR believes Taliban chief Mullah Omar is hiding out. The border then follows the vast openness of Afghanistan's Kandahar province, where the terrain is less difficult to traverse but also offers far less concealment from the prying eyes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This region is also sparsely populated with little in the way of infrastructure to facilitate the movement of military supplies. (click image to enlarge) This geography is a fixed reality for border operations. There are passes that are suitable for transit by pack animal or even motorbikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles and there are passes that can only be traveled by people on foot and in single file. It is not that insurgents create a new infiltration point when one is shut down by U.S. or NATO security operations but that there are so many potential infiltration points in key sectors that infiltrators can vary locations of ingress and egress and have a good chance of success. Western troops, burdened by a multitude of security missions inside Afghanistan proper, are too limited in number to cover them all. (click image to enlarge) Another fixed reality is weather. Combat operations in the Afghan-Pakistani border area take on a regular cycle in accordance with the seasons. Winter arrives early in the extremely high altitudes of the Hindu Kush and Safed Koh. When the snows come, many of the high mountain passes become impassable, causing a noticeable decline in combat activity. With the spring thaw, heavy snow melt in the mountains results in flooding, mudslides and muddy or washed-out roads and paths, also limiting the level of combat. The combat season, then, for much of the border area traditionally runs from late March through October — although a new U.S. strategy could call for sustained pressure during the winter months. The mountains also limit the use of helicopters, which become more difficult to operate with maximum payloads at higher elevations, in the hot summer weather and through overcast skies. Yet the distribution of NATO forces in Afghanistan makes helicopters a coveted asset in theater. Even the most basic military maneuvers are extremely taxing in the high and rugged border areas, which also afford a distinct advantage to locals who are acclimated to the altitude and intimately familiar with the terrain. (click image to enlarge) To the east of the most heavily traveled border region are Pakistan's FATA, NWFP and Balochistan province. Covering nearly 40,000 square miles, the FATA and NWFP together are larger than the group of northeastern U.S. states known as New England (minus Maine); yet with almost 20 million people, the FATA/NWFP area is more populous than all of New England and has a much higher population density. NWFP is very nearly three times as densely populated as all of New England. This density offers exceptional human camouflage for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters and their core leadership as well as jihadist actors of various other stripes. Offering infiltration routes and sanctuaries (where someone like Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar can remain undiscovered despite the best efforts of the Bush administration), the border region is receptive to the Islamist cause and has been since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. The FATA was the staging ground for the Afghan mujahideen resistance, and the multinational Islamist fighters who poured into the FATA and NWFP — supported by the United States as well as Pakistan — were seen by the local Pashtun tribes as noble guardians against Russian aggression. From tribal cultures themselves, many of these foreign fighters eventually began to marry into the local tribes and establish roots in the region.

Cultural Landscape

Given the population density of Pakistan border provinces, the cultural landscape is a crucial consideration for military operations along the border. In the days of the British Empire, London left what is now known as the FATA autonomous because the region was considered hostile and ungovernable, not only because of the rugged terrain but also because of the intense tribal loyalty among the people. The occasional imperial intervention never ended well. The region retained its autonomy when Pakistan became first the Dominion of Pakistan in 1947 and then the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1956. And the region remains autonomous to this day. Although the two main Pakistani Pashtun areas are often lumped together on military maps, there are significant differences between the FATA and NWFP. While the FATA have enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, NWFP is a full-fledged part of the Pakistani federation. Like all provinces in Pakistan, NWFP is ruled by a chief minister who heads the provincial legislature and a governor appointed by Islamabad. In contrast, the FATA has been ruled directly by Islamabad through political agents working with the tribal leaders — a system that has broken down with the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, who seek to establish an Islamist state in the Pashtun areas. Because residents are so hostile to outsiders, security in the FATA is enforced mainly by paramilitary organizations like the Pakistani Frontier Corps, which recruits locally and serves as the tip of the spear for regular-army operations in the region. For many regional inhabitants, their support of the mujahideen did not end in 1989 when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. The battle-hardened foreign fighters, many of whom were not allowed to return to their native countries, stayed on to fight the communist Afghan regime, which was brought down in 1992. Amid the factional infighting that ensued, the Taliban emerged in 1994 and took control of Kabul in 1996. Until the 9/11 attacks, foreign fighters flocked to Afghanistan — often through northwestern Pakistan. When the Taliban regime withdrew in the face of the U.S. onslaught — declining to fight — the FATA was the easy and obvious fallback position. In 2004, under pressure from the Bush administration, the Pakistani army began addressing the growing Taliban/al Qaeda issue in the FATA, resulting in heavy fighting with intermittent peace agreements that fell apart under the weight of a maturing Pakistani insurgency. It is a landscape that has grown only more hostile to government rule and U.S. influence in recent years, and civilian casualties caused by UAV airstrikes and cross-border raids into Pakistan are not winning any hearts and minds. But it is also a complex landscape in which many different ethnic, tribal, ideological, religious and nationalistic loyalties collide. While an assortment of disaffected tribes host a variety of Islamist militants in the FATA and NWFP, a host of other tribes and militant groups remain loyal to and under the control of the Pakistani state. Indeed, in Islamabad's eyes, the border areas are home to both "good" Taliban and "bad" Taliban — the former focused on the fight in Afghanistan, the latter on the insurgency in Pakistan. The seven agencies of the FATA are Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. Bajaur, with Khar as its capital, is the northernmost agency. To the north and east, Bajaur borders the NWFP districts of Dir and Malakand — two areas where STRATFOR believes the apex leadership of al Qaeda prime is likely hiding. There are three main tribes in Bajaur: the Utman Khel, Tarkalanri and Mamund. The Pakistani army is currently engaged in a major operation against Taliban elements in Bajaur, which also has experienced a number of airstrikes by U.S. UAVs, at least one of which was reportedly targeting Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number two. In Mohmand agency, the key tribes are the Mohmand, Musa Khel, Daud Khel, Mero Khel, Tarak Zai, Safi, Utman Khel and Halim Zais. Al-Zawahiri is married to a native of this agency and is thought to visit the agency frequently. Mohmand made the headlines June 11 when a U.S. airstrike struck a Frontier Corps outpost and killed 11 Pakistani troops including a mid-level officer. Khyber agency contains the crucial Khyber Pass, one of the most important roads across the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. It is the main artery connecting Peshawar to Kabul and passes through the border town of Torkham. Because of this artery, Khyber is the most developed agency in the tribal belt. It is inhabited by four tribes — the Afridi, Shinwari, Mullagori and Shimani. Until fairly recently, the insurgent Pakistani Taliban had not been a problem in Khyber, but there are now at least three Taliban factions challenging the writ of the central government. Orakzai is the only FATA agency that does not border Afghanistan. It is sandwiched between Khyber and Kurram agencies and NWFP's Peshawar, Nowshera, Kohat and Hangu districts. Its capital, Darra Adma Khel, is the site of a well-known and illegal regional arms bazaar. The Orakzai tribes consist of two major groups: the original Orakzai and the migrant Hamsaya. The security situation in Orakzai is not as bad as it is in other parts of the FATA, but there are still issues with the Taliban in Orakzai, and some sectarian strife has spilled over from neighboring Kurram agency. Kurram is the second largest tribal region in the FATA. The agency has a significant Shiite population and has been the scene of fierce sectarian clashes. The agency also has a significant jihadist presence. It is home to a number of tribes: the Turi, Bangash, Parachamkani, Massozai, Alisherzai, Zaimusht, Mangal, Kharotai, Ghalgi and Hazara. North Waziristan is inhabited by the Utmanzai Wazirs, Daurs and other smaller tribes such as the Gurbaz, Kharsins, Saidgis and Malakshi Mehsuds. In the days of the British, tribesmen from this area rallied around Mirzali Khan, who was later given the title of the Faqir of Ipi. Under him, jihad was declared against the British, and his huge lashkar (force) remained at war with the British until Pakistan gained its independence in 1947. In late 2005, elements of the Pakistani Taliban declared the establishment of an Islamic emirate in North Waziristan, which is the headquarters of pro-Islamabad Afghan Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose house was hit by missiles fired from U.S. UAVs Sept. 9 and a large number of his relatives were killed. The southernmost agency of the tribal belt is South Waziristan, in which the two main tribes are the Mehsuds and Wazirs. South Waziristan was the first part of the FATA to be the target of the Pakistani military operations that began in 2004. The Pakistani government has tried to undermine the power of the most prominent Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and his Waziristan-based Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan movement through rival Taliban warlord Maulvi Nazir, who is pro-central government. Mehsud, also directly linked to al Qaeda, is known to have a large number of foreign fighters in South Waziristan, especially Uzbeks. Islamabad attempted to restore order through a number of deals with militants in the agency — all of which have fallen apart. Security forces are now facing stiff resistance from the militants.


Against this border backdrop of mountainous terrain, weather and internal and external strife must flow supplies for Western forces as well as Taliban and foreign jihadists. As U.S. forces conduct cross-border raids in Pakistan, heightening tensions between Pakistan and the United States, U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan depend heavily on logistical routes from Pakistan. Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of U.S./NATO supplies arrive in Afghanistan from Pakistan in massive convoys with civilian truck drivers. On the Pakistan side of the border, convoy security is provided by the Pakistani army. The convoys cross the border on two roads from Pakistan — one east of Kabul, the other east of Kandahar. Especially on the northern route, these convoys transit the very heart of the FATA and NWFP and are frequently attacked by bandits and Taliban and jihadist fighters. The bazaars of border cities such as Quetta and Peshawar are awash in cheap, plundered U.S. and NATO military goods. The connection to the ocean through the port of Karachi is extremely important for U.S. and NATO logistics in Afghanistan, as is the continued flow of fuel from Pakistani refineries. Alternative routes from the north and northeast are used for the remaining 10 to 20 percent of supplies, but these routes are not as established or as efficient as those through Pakistan. They are also influenced by Russia, which, though not a decisive issue, has become an increasing concern since Moscow's assertiveness in Georgia. The infrastructure connecting Karachi to Kandahar, Kabul and the internal ring road that connects Afghanistan's major cities are by far the most efficient, established and heavily used logistical routes for NATO and U.S. forces in theater. The collapse of these routes would create an enormous logistical problem all but impossible to solve from the air for any length of time.

Challenges for Pakistan

Pakistan's military presence in the border areas — consisting of the Frontier Corps, other locally recruited paramilitary units and regular army troops — amounts to roughly 100,000 armed men. These forces occupy small, scattered and isolated outposts attempting to cover hundreds of miles of rugged border terrain. They have little expectation of reinforcement and their own supply lines either are directly controlled by Taliban loyalists and foreign jihadists or are contingent on the goodwill of the tribal leaders in the territory the supply lines pass through — tribes that are struggling to balance the demands of Islamabad and the Taliban. Though the Pakistani army has deployed its own units to the region, it has little more in the way of reinforcements and already feels stretched thin in the east, where it sits opposite qualitatively and quantitatively superior Indian forces. Beyond the myriad conflicting loyalties along Pakistan's western border, perhaps the most persistent problem is posed by the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country's main intelligence agency. The ISI played a key role in the rise of transnational jihadism in the first place by cultivating Islamist militants for its own strategic purposes in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Pakistan perceived the U.S. lack of interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal as a green light for it to do as it pleased in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda pursued its own agenda, and many of Pakistan's own jihadist proxies became more and more autonomous. Eventually, the post-9/11 global security environment ruptured the ISI-jihadist relationship. More recently, the ISI appears to have lost control of many of its former proxies, although extensive ties remain. The current reality for Pakistan seems to be that, while it can establish a broad presence in the border areas with paramilitary forces in small outposts and ISI ties to the Taliban, the presence is rife with questionable loyalties, and the government's foothold along the border remains a very tenuous one. In short, the Pakistani armed forces are simply not able to alter, in any meaningful way, the local dynamics on the border that underlay the growing domestic insurgency, much less combat the Taliban and foreign jihadist fighters who move back and forth across the border. To have any influence at all in Afghanistan, Islamabad has no choice but to use the Pashtun community — and the Taliban are the most potent force among the Afghan Pashtuns. But supporting these "good" Taliban in Afghanistan has strengthened the domestic "bad" Taliban who seek to establish an Islamist state on Pakistani soil. This is finally becoming an untenable situation for Islamabad.

Challenges for the U.S. and NATO

U.S. and NATO forces are stretched even thinner along the border than the Pakistanis are, and their efforts to stem the tide of fighters and supplies crossing the frontier from the Bajaur border town of Khar in the north to the Balochistan border town of Chaman to the south have largely failed. Western requirements for a military outpost are much higher in terms of defensibility, manning and access to supplies and timely reinforcement. And the U.S./NATO force in Afghanistan is already a lean one — 50,000 to 60,000 troops only now being meaningfully reinforced by the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA) — with an overwhelming mission: secure all of Afghanistan, engage in heavy combat operations to the south, train the ANA and attempt to stem the Taliban/al Qaeda tide crossing the border. While persistent UAV orbits help provide situational awareness, the rugged terrain makes it difficult to distinguish, from the air, guerrillas and vehicles carrying supplies for the Taliban from civilians and their vehicles — and UAVs cannot replace foot patrols and interaction with the locals for intelligence gathering. UAV airstrikes have left enough innocent people dead to undermine Western legitimacy in the eyes of many locals on both sides of the border. Naturally, the problem also has been seized upon by al Qaeda and the Taliban for propaganda purposes. Meanwhile, the West is making few friends in the border areas as the United States continues to conduct overt and unilateral cross-border actions (often with collateral damage). It is an extremely tough situation for the West — more daunting, perhaps, than the challenges in Iraq. The ethnic and tribal complexities of the Afghan-Pakistani border, along with the deep roots of ultraconservative Islam in the region, make the ethno-sectarian strife among Iraq's Sunni, Shia and Kurds look uncomplicated. Add the logistical challenges of asserting military force along the Afghan-Pakistani border and Islamabad's lengthening laundry list of untenable security problems, and the military challenges for the West seem almost insurmountable. The border territory is effectively controlled by tribal and militant leaders with conflicting if not incompatible loyalties — loyalties to those outside the Pakistani government, to those within it and, in many cases, to both sides. Islamabad vocally opposes U.S. violations of its territory and sovereignty and struggles to demonstrate to its people that it has their interests at heart, even though it must maintain the U.S. relationship for essential military aid and economic support. These issues present profound challenges for both Washington and Islamabad. But the United States must find a way to address the border situation if it hopes to turn the tables in Afghanistan. Pakistan is losing ground to the Taliban on its own territory and cannot address the problem on its own.

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