New US Offensive in Southern Afghanistan Puts Pakistani Military on Alert

04 July 2009

U.S. Marines cross a bridge in the Nawa district in Afghanistan's Helmand province, 04 Jul 2009
U.S. Marines cross a bridge in the Nawa district in Afghanistan's Helmand province, 04 Jul 2009
As thousands of U.S. Marines push deep inside Taliban territory in southern Afghanistan, there is concern in Pakistan that fleeing Afghan insurgents will cross the porous border, putting more pressure on the army as it wages its own campaign to rid Pakistan of Islamic extremists.

Before this week's surge of 4,000 Marines and hundreds of Afghan forces into Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, the issue of how such a bold move would impact Pakistan was already on the minds of top U.S. policy makers.

Top U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke  in Islamabad, Pakistan, 05 Jun 2009
Richard Holbrooke (file photo)
The top U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, was very public about his concerns regarding the possible influx of Islamic fighters into Pakistan during a visit to Islamabad last month.

"We are concerned that there may be some spillover effect, as there was in the past," he said. "I've raised it repeatedly in Washington and here [Pakistan] and in Kabul. I don't want to be an alarmist here."

"But the one thing that is very important is that as the ISAF (NATO) forces operate in the areas near the Pakistan border, that the impact on Pakistan be taken into account at all times and that the Pakistani security forces are properly aware of what the military actions are so they can do what is necessary to protect your border," he added.

Just hours after the announcement of "Operation Strike of the Sword," aimed at securing Helmand province, the Pakistani military deployed soldiers to the rugged and porous border in southern Baluchistan, situated directly across from Helmand.

Pakistan's concerns come at a particularly challenging time for the army. The military is trying to complete a two-month offensive to dislodge Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley region, and will soon begin a similar operation to hunt down top Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan.  

Major General Athar Abbas (File photo)
Major General Athar Abbas (File photo)
Top army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas says Pakistani officials have been speaking to U.S. and Afghan officials about how to prevent the infiltration of insurgents.

"We are coordinating with each other. We are sharing intelligence," he said. "Whenever there is an operation close to the border area where there is a possibility of either exchange of firing or crossing. So we keep each other informed and both sides remain well-informed so that they can avoid the possibility of accidental fire or friendly fire. "

But the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is long and notoriously easy to cross, especially in southern Baluchistan.  

Pakistan is facing other burdens, too. Among them: how to repatriate the more than two million people displaced by the Swat Valley offensive.  

Although an estimated 87 percent of those who have been displaced are not in camps, those who are will soon be confronted by Pakistan's monsoon (rainy) season. Humanitarian relief officials warn that heavy rains could spread water-borne diseases in the camps, which are made up of tents that will not be able to withstand pounding rains.

Martin Mogwanja is the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Pakistan.  

Displaced children from Pakistan's Swat Valley wait to receive food at Shiekh Yasin camp in Mardan, 03 Jun  2009
Displaced children from Pakistan's Swat Valley wait to receive food at Shiekh Yasin camp in Mardan, 03 Jun 2009
"We will also need possibly additional resources," he said. "There may have to be some camps or parts of camps that would have to be moved. As you know, some of the camps are in the low lying areas and the most flood-prone districts are Swabi, Mardan, Nowshera and Peshawar. Those are the same districts where there are a majority of IDP camps."

As U.S. Marines continued their new offensive across the Pakistani border in southern Afghanistan on Saturday, militants targeted a military base in the east with a truck bomb. The attack in Paktika province sparked a long battle that left two U.S. soldiers dead. Airstrikes were called in to end the fighting, which local officials say killed more than two dozen Taliban fighters.