- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

JALALABAD, Afghanistan | Pakistan’s ongoing military offensive in its northwest tribal areas is chasing insurgents across the border, where they are being intercepted by a U.S.-Afghan security initiative, a U.S. commander says.

The level of violence over the past couple of months in the northeastern [Afghan] provinces of Kunar and Nuristan has risen significantly from the same period last year, and is expected to increase another 10 percent to 20 percent in the spring, largely because of the results of operations across the border in Pakistan´s Bajaur region, Army Col. John Spiszer told The Washington Times.

Although Pakistan’s commitment to the campaign against militants has been questioned and some Pakistani troops are reported to have been redeployed to the country’s eastern border with India, the Bajaur campaign was having an impact, Col. Spiszer said.

“Pakistani pressure… has denied [the insurgents] safe havens and led to more contact in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that an increase of Afghan security forces in the region also has contributed to a rise in hostile engagements this winter. “And that´s not a bad thing.”

Col. Spiszer said the trend is likely to continue as additional U.S. forces are deployed to help secure the mountainous terrain that divides the two countries.

Of the 3,500 to 4,000 troops from the 3rd Combat Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, scheduled to deploy in January, roughly 500 will help stabilize his area of operations, which also includes Nangarhar and Laghman provinces, he said. In the near term, a joint initiative known as Operation Lionheart is under way to better coordinate counterinsurgency efforts on both sides of the border through intelligence sharing and border interdiction.

Col. Spiszer said the initiative is “less about synchronicity and more complementary,” with commanders exchanging tactical information daily to prevent insurgents from resupplying and transiting unchecked through traditional filter points.

U.S.-led operations inside Afghanistan will increase as winter progresses to support the Pakistani offensive, he said, adding that the sustained nature of Pakistani operations “has the potential to make some differences.” He added, however, that Pakistan has been focused away from the immediate border, “so we haven’t closed all the gaps on either side.”

Pakistan has faced mounting U.S. pressure to reassert control over its Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which have long served as a sanctuary for Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda.

Since August, the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps have waged a grinding offensive in Bajaur Agency, a lawless region about half the size of Rhode Island that is suspected to be a hide-out for al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Reports that Pakistani forces are being redeployed from tribal areas to the Indian border — after the deadly Mumbai attacks that India blames on Pakistani militants — suggest that the military is growing frustrated by a domestic counterinsurgency campaign it is ill-equipped to fight, preferring to confront an old and conventional foe.

However, Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, said reports that Pakistan is moving troops to the border with India are “not true.”

“We have not moved troops from our western borders,” he said. “Security forces are continuing their operations against militants in the tribal areas. Currently an operation is going on in Khyber agency against militants who were disrupting the NATO supply route to Afghanistan.”

Several areas in Bajaur have been subject to “cordon-search and clearance operations,” he said. The “Bajaur operation is progressing well regardless of [the] gathering threat on our eastern borders or harsh winter weather.”

Mr. Kiani added that “all the three valleys and important towns have been cleared of militants.”

Bajaur is adjacent to Kunar province, currently the most violent in Afghanistan.

A host of insurgent groups, led by the Hezb-e-Islami of former Afghan mujahedeen chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are operating in the region. He was a CIA-funded proxy during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.

Fighting in Kunar has been concentrated in the Korengal Valley. In July, nine U.S. soldiers were killed and a base was almost overrun in nearby Wanat village, the biggest single loss of American life to date. The 2008 U.S. death toll of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was 151, the highest since the war began in 2001.

Col. Spiszer, who commands a brigade of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, said that about $80 million was spent last year on reconstruction in the region despite the hostilities.

He said the presence of coalition outposts deep in the backcountry also has allowed development projects to accelerate in more densely populated areas such as Nangarhar province, which has been relatively peaceful.

Several bridges and a paved road are to be built along the Kunar river to better integrate the area, and an additional 400 Afghan border police are to be trained and equipped.

The arrival of hundreds of reinforcements from the 10th Mountain Division will make this easier, Col. Spiszer said, enabling him to monitor stretches of border where insurgents still regularly cross over from Bajaur.

“Now I can’t stop everybody from getting in, but hundreds more U.S. and Afghan forces is going to make a big difference,” he said.

Sara A. Carter contributed to this report from Washington.

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