Tuesday, January 16, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — Cross-border attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces have increased fourfold since Pakistan signed a pact in September giving tribal groups greater control of some border areas, U.S. military officials said yesterday.

Pakistani officials hailed the agreement that was drawn up as a way to entice local tribe and clan leaders to monitor the porous border in North Waziristan, where the central government has historically had little sway. A similar deal was reached earlier for South Waziristan.

But U.S. and Afghan officials say the results to date have been very disappointing, predicting 2007 and 2008 would be the most violent years in battling the insurgency since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in early 2002.

“We do have a problem,” said Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in Kabul for two days of briefings on the security situation in Afghanistan, said after a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that there was “no question there has been a significant increase in cross-border attacks and it is a problem.”

But he added that Pakistan had proven itself a strong ally in the global war on terrorism.

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan said yesterday he wants to extend the combat tours of 1,200 soldiers amid rising violence, and Mr. Gates said he was “strongly inclined” to recommend a troop increase to President Bush if commanders think it is needed.

The defense secretary also said Pakistan must act to stem an increasing flow of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, Mahmud Ali Durrani, told The Washington Times on Monday that Islamabad was planning a number of steps to improve border security, including the addition of new border posts and the closing of four Afghan refugee camps located near the border.

Nevertheless, U.S. military officials here were scathing about the results of the Waziristan accords, struck at a time when Taliban forces already were increasing the number and sophistication of their attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.

Just last week, 150 Islamist fighters in six trucks drove to the Pakistan border and slipped unimpeded into Afghanistan’s Khost province for a planned attack on a U.S.-manned forward operating base. The incursion was detected by coalition forces and most of the fighters were killed, but the ease with which they crossed the border upset U.S. officials.

The Taliban’s open use of Pakistan as a sanctuary and recruiting base “is critically challenging the ability of the government of Afghanistan to stand itself up,” a U.S. military briefer, speaking on background, said yesterday, summarizing the latest intelligence on the insurgent threat. Officials said at least three Taliban- and al Qaeda-affiliated groups were involved in attacks.

Statistics show a startling increase in the number of confrontations with Islamist anti-government forces, which U.S. and NATO officials attribute in part to their own stepped-up operations to find and hit terrorist sanctuaries.

Suicide bombings in Afghanistan jumped from 27 in 2005 to 139 last year, while direct and indirect fire incidents nearly tripled to 6,053. Anti-government forces planted 1,677 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, last year, compared to just 783 in 2005.

More worrisome, the attacks have not tapered off in the winter months of 2006 as they had in the past.

“The Taliban kind of got their legs under them last year,” another U.S. general, also briefing on background, said yesterday.

Both Gen. Eikenberry and Mr. Karzai said Afghan and coalition forces are prepared for another bloody year.

With nearly 23,000 U.S. troops in the country, the American military presence is at an all-time high and Gen. Eikenberry said he is lobbying to keep 1,200 U.S. troops now in the country from being transferred to Iraq.

The general said he thought it was unlikely that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan could be brought down before 2009 at the earliest.

Commanders at the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) painted a more optimistic picture, saying a NATO offensive in the summer of 2006 had dealt Taliban forces a major tactical defeat around the southern city of Kandahar. ISAF officials said they had received excellent cooperation from the Pakistan government in the fight.

Pakistani officials in Islamabad said Pakistan’s army destroyed suspected al Qaeda hide-outs in an air strike near the Afghan border in South Waziristan yesterday, killing 10 persons, the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Gates yesterday traveled to Afghanistan’s eastern mountains to visit Forward Operating Base Tillman, which is named for former Arizona Cardinals football star Pat Tillman, killed by “friendly fire” in a U.S. Special Forces operation in Afghanistan in 2004.

With the Pakistan border clearly visible from the camp, Cpl. Travis Phillips, a mortar gunner from Brazoria, Texas, told Mr. Gates that insurgents had fired “rockets galore” at the base recently, from both Pakistani and Afghan territory.

While U.S. troops can return fire at Pakistani targets in extraordinary situations with top-level clearance, Cpl. Phillips said he had never done so during his time at the base. “You don’t want to start an international incident,” he said.

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