The South Asia Channel

The undeclared AfPak war

An Afghan civilian was killed over the weekend by the military shooting into a residential area in Goshta, in the eastern part of Nangarhar province on the Pakistani border. Despite the current furor over civilian casualties, neither the Afghan government, nor Afghan president Hamid Karzai — who is quite vocal in criticizing civilian casualties caused ...

DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images

An Afghan civilian was killed over the weekend by the military shooting into a residential area in Goshta, in the eastern part of Nangarhar province on the Pakistani border. Despite the current furor over civilian casualties, neither the Afghan government, nor Afghan president Hamid Karzai — who is quite vocal in criticizing civilian casualties caused by NATO — nor the international media are drawing much attention to this incident. Afghan officials say these cross-border firings have happened a dozen times in the last month alone.

The military doing the shooting is not NATO’s but Pakistan‘s, which may explain some of Karzai’s and the media’s silence. For the last several years, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s militaries have lobbed artillery shells at each other. It’s never been very intense — a dozen times a year, with a few dozen killed in the process. But the rate at which these clashes take place is accelerating. Every once in a while there is some media coverage of these occasional clashes — like in 2008, when rumors surfaced that the Pakistani military was firing on U.S. helicopters conducting a cross-border raid into Pakistan’s tribal areas — but by and large, they fly under the radar of most reporters.

The shootings go both ways. Sometimes Afghanistan fires into Pakistan; sometimes Pakistan targets Afghan military bases. Both sides justify the shootings by claiming they are responding to provocation or cross-border militant traffic. For years, Karzai has been threatening to send Afghan troops into Pakistan to "hunt down" the Taliban forces that hide there (assuming these are not the same Taliban he has repeatedly called his "brothers"). Similarly, Pakistan faces a problem with Taliban cells in Afghanistan moving across the border to support the Pakistani Taliban in its fight against Islamabad.

None of this is really news, per se. The Durand Line separating Afghanistan and Pakistan is famously porous, and Afghanistan has never officially recognized it as its eastern border. The Taliban move freely across it; so do the tribes, communities, and families that live on either side. In fact, the only time the Afghanistan-Pakistan border seems to be closed to traffic is when Pakistan halts NATO supply convoys moving into Afghanistan.

Hovering over this simmering dispute is the U.S.’s fleet of armed drones, which continue to pound militant hideouts in Pakistan’s tribal areas. They, too, are a part of the complexity of violence patterns there — though they tend to garner far more attention in both Pakistani and international media than any of the more conventional cross-border clashes.

In a way, Afghanistan and Pakistan are waging a largely unacknowledged war, with militants, militaries, and casualties. It is not nearly as intense or as bloody as the wars either country is fighting internally, against different flavors of Taliban — but it is nevertheless a war. Neither country probably sees much value in making their conflict official, tensions between Islamabad and Kabul are slowly escalating tensions (despite progress in their trade talks).

The Taliban are at the center of this undeclared Afghanistan-Pakistan war. Many Afghans blame Pakistan for supporting and arming the Taliban. Some Afghan officials, like former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, have gone so far as to openly demand the bombing of Pakistani territory until Pakistan relinquishes control of the Taliban and other militant groups. Pakistan, for its part, still sees Afghanistan as within its sphere of influence — and reacts especially strongly against the prospect of a heavy Indian influence in the country. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks indicate that the Pakistani Army Chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has been "utterly frank" about how intolerable Pakistan would find a pro-India Afghan government.

Whether the cross-border skirmishes will somehow drive a wedge between Afghanistan and India remains to be seen, just as the complex and evolving relationship between the Pakistani security services and the various Islamist movements they support has an uncertain future. Given the slow escalation of border tensions, it may not be a good idea to, say, build the Afghan security services to be nearly 400,000 strong, as has been the plan since General Stanley McChrystal was in charge of the war (and continued by General William Caldwell, who is responsible for their training). But regardless of what the effects of either country’s policies may be, the growing number of military skirmishes along the Durand Line deserve far more attention than they’ve been given so far.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He blogs about Central Asia at www.registan.net.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola