U.S. Troops Monitor Volatile Afghan Border

Dec 2, 2011
Originally published on December 2, 2011 10:30 am
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Let's go next to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is the heart of a war that involves both countries and it is also a center of controversy. Last week, NATO forces on the Afghan side fired across the border at what they thought were insurgents and killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers instead. Authorities are still investigating, but Pakistan has already cut off supplies to U.S. forces and said it will skip an upcoming conference on Afghanistan's future. We're going to get a perspective now from the Afghan side of the border.

NPR's Quil Lawrence is traveling with U.S. troop there. Quil, where are you and what are troops doing where you are?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: I'm in Paktika. Right now at Sharana Airfield in the center of the province. I just returned from a trip out to really the edge of the border, within sight of the Pakistani border at an operating base called Tillman, where you can see the mountains in Pakistan.

Troops there say that their mission really is to interdict travelling insurgents who are coming back and forth from Pakistan, especially the Haqqani Group, which is based just over the border in Pakistan, and who use some of this terrain in order to get towards the main highway that leads to Kabul and launch some of the spectacular attacks that we've seen over the summer on the Intercontinental Hotel and the U.S. embassy.

INSKEEP: So they're tracking these insurgents they believe are going back and forth across the border. In those circumstances, Quil, how common is it to have firing that goes across the border one way or the other?

LAWRENCE: Oh, it's still quite common. We had an incident out here on Tuesday evening where there was heavy shelling coming across from the Pakistani side toward a U.S. outpost in the district called Marga(ph) here in Paktika. They used what's called a border control center, which is a small team of Afghan and U.S. and actual Pakistani uniform military who are based on this side of the border to clear it up, to make sure that the U.S. wasn't going to fire back near any Pakistani military outposts. So this is evidence that this sort of on-the-ground cooperation is still going on despite some of the larger gestures between Pakistan and Washington at the moment.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear: You've got Pakistanis on the Afghan side who are continuing to work with U.S. and Afghan forces when there's firing going to the Afghan side.

LAWRENCE: Yes, and these people are inside - some of them inside U.S. military installations.

INSKEEP: This is something that we heard earlier in the year as well, Quil, when Pakistanis were angry about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Top officials were angry but it was said that troops at a lower level continued cooperating, but at the same time supplies that go through Pakistan to Afghanistan have been cut off. Do you notice any effects of that where you are?

LAWRENCE: Well, NATO has other routes, so it's not like helicopters are running out of fuel. There are few items conspicuously missing from the dining facilities or the PX, the stores that the troops shop in here. But nothing major yet. If it goes on for a long time, it could be a major problem.

INSKEEP: And just to be clear from what you were saying before, Quil, is there any doubt in the minds of American officials that insurgents are continuing to hide on the Pakistani side of the border?

LAWRENCE: No. American generals have been talking about this for years, that insurgents use the Pakistani border in order to launch attacks. They have safe havens on the other side. And many American officials over the years have said that they don't think it's possible really to win the war without doing something about those safe havens. But we should also really redefine what we mean when we say border. Flying out to this operating base, Tillman, yesterday, the mountains below looked like a pile of steak knives. They're just jagged, the sort of thing that are impossible to cross except for a few passes, especially once the snow starts to fall.

Some of them are 8,000 feet high. And along a border that was last defined sort of in the end of the 19th century - the Duran Line was drawn between Pakistan and Afghanistan - but it's not formalized, so many of the people on the ground don't really know where they live. Some of them will say they're Pakistani, some will say they're Afghan. Depending on the weather and how close they are to which mountains, they might go to Pakistan as their nearest sort of market town, going in from these remote villages; they might go to Afghanistan. There are also a lot of legitimate reasons for people to be crossing the border. At night this border is virtually invisible, even to American chopper pilots with all of their advanced technology. So it's a recipe for confusion, sometimes with fatal consequences

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence is traveling with U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.