- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan — Clashes on the poorly defined border between Pakistan and Afghanistan early this week that left a Pakistani soldier dead were dismissed by the U.S. military Wednesday as “a misunderstanding.”

Pakistan’s army and Afghan militia forces exchanged machine-gun and artillery fire on Monday, a day after mortar rounds from the Afghan side killed the Pakistani soldier and injured three others.

“We believe that this was nothing more than a misunderstanding between the two sides present on the ground at the time,” U.S. military spokesman Maj. Mark McCann told reporters in Kabul.

Pakistan had earlier asked the U.S. military to investigate what it described as the “unprovoked” fatal mortar attack in the mountainous North Waziristan tribal zone.

Maj. McCann said the 18,000-strong U.S.-led forces who have been fighting Taliban and al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan for the last three years were not involved in the clashes but some troops were sent to determine the situation.

“Our role has been much more indirect, working with both sides to try to help them determine what happened,” Maj. McCann said. Measures were put in place to prevent such incidents in the future, he said without elaborating.

Parts of the border between the two countries — known as the Durand Line after a treaty signed between the Afghan king and British India in 1893 — remain disputed by Kabul, and the issue has been the source of some friction.

[The Durand Line was part of an agreement signed by Abdur Rahman Shah, then ruler of Afghanistan, and Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, foreign secretary of the British colonial government of India, as the agreed border between Afghanistan and the British Indian empire.

[After British India’s 1947 partition into independent India and Pakistan, the Durand Line became the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which had acquiesced to the 1893 boundary under duress. In 1949, Afghanistan’s parliament canceled all the treaties former Afghan governments had signed with the British-India government, including the Durand Treaty, and announced that Kabul does not recognize the Durand Line as a legal boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

[Some military analysts say this arrangement is convenient to both countries, since both sides of the Durand Line are populated by ethnic Pashtuns, who move freely across it, and the lack of a northwestern border is said to provide Pakistan with “strategic depth” in its military rivalry with India to its south and east.

[However, after the overthrow of the Taliban, some Afghan officials issued a “corrected” version of the Durand Line that pushes the boundary eastward to include a few large Pakistani cities, causing concern in Islamabad.

[Sunday’s killing of a Pakistani soldier by Afghan fire and the next day’s cross-border artillery and machine-gun exchange reflect the current tension over the Durand Line.]

Thousands of Pakistani, Afghan and U.S.-led troops are hunting insurgents on their respective sides of the 1,500-mile “border.”

Pakistan’s military downplayed the clashes Wednesday, describing them as a “firing incident of a minor tactical nature” and saying they should not be interpreted as a heightening of tension between the two sides. The situation after Monday was “normal and no untoward incident has taken place thereafter,” it said.

One Pakistani newspaper, quoting a paramilitary official, said 15 Afghans were killed in the exchange of fire. But Pakistani and U.S. military officials said they were unaware of casualties on the Afghan side of the border.

On Dec. 31, four suspected Taliban insurgents and one government soldier died in an attack on a government office in southeastern Afghanistan, an official said Wednesday.

Militants from the ousted Islamic regime struck at the headquarters of Atghar district in Zabul province, about 212 miles southeast of Kabul, on the last day of 2004, the official said.

The group of 22 Taliban fighters had regrouped earlier in Quetta, in southwestern Pakistan, provincial governor Khial Mohammed Hussaini told Agence France-Presse.

“The fighting went on for three hours, and after leaving four dead, the militants fled to the mountains,” he said, adding that a government soldier was also killed in the gunfight in Zabul province.

Zabul is a former Taliban stronghold where remnants of the movement regularly regroup to carry out guerrilla attacks, mainly in southern and southeastern provinces of Afghanistan.

The province shares a long, porous border with Pakistan and the rugged mountains and cold winter make it difficult for Afghanistan’s fledgling national army to block cross-border attacks.

Afghanistan suffered a bloody start to 2005, with two U.S. troops dying in as many days. One American soldier and a suspected Taliban militant were killed during a raid by U.S. forces in western Herat province on Sunday, and an ambush Monday in the eastern province of Kunar left another U.S. serviceman dead.

The militant killed on Sunday, identified as Mullah Dost Mohammed, was a “known Taliban facilitator and narco-trafficker with ties to senior Taliban leaders,” Maj. McCann told a press briefing on Wednesday.

Mullah Dost Mohammed shot the American before being killed himself, Maj. McCann said.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition caught a suspected militant carrying five sticks of dynamite, nearly 5 pounds of explosives and other material for making improvised bombs at Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, Maj. McCann added.

More than 18,000 American troops are in Afghanistan, along with at least 8,000 international peacekeepers. The U.S. Defense Department has said fresh U.S. troops will be deployed to Afghanistan to maintain the current force level of three brigades and a division headquarters. The first units deploying to Afghanistan are due to arrive in mid-2005, and successive units will be sent through mid-2006.

The Taliban claimed at midweek to have killed more than 500 soldiers of the U.S.-led coalition in more than 100 attacks during 2004, according to a report by the Afghan Islamic Press, based in western Pakistan.

The Taliban issued a list of attacks titled “The exact number of life and financial loss of Christian invaders and their puppets during year 2004,” signed by Mufti Lateefullah Hakimi, a known Taliban spokesman. It offered no additional evidence.

However the U.S. military says 33 American soldiers died from hostile fire in 2004 — up from 12 the year before — and a total of 60 have been killed in combat since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

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