Bloomberg News

U.S. Afghan Pullback Lets Taliban Open New Bases, Pakistan Says

July 01, 2011

July 1 (Bloomberg) -- A U.S. pullback of troops from northeastern Afghanistan over 20 months has let Islamic guerrillas establish bases in the area and carry out unusually large attacks on Pakistan in recent weeks, the Pakistani military said.

Several Pakistani Taliban groups moved fighters into Nuristan and Kunar and used those Afghan provinces five times in the past month to send forces numbering in the hundreds to attack Pakistani border posts or police stations, said military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.

“In the past we never had this kind of experience, where 200 to 300 militants attacked us,” Abbas said yesterday in an interview at Pakistan’s army headquarters in Rawalpindi. “It’s a big body in this mountainous terrain” and shows that the militants have established bases in northeastern Afghanistan that can house, feed and transport such groups, he said.

Pakistan’s complaint about the Taliban filling a power vacuum in Afghanistan comes as President Barack Obama pledged June 22 to withdraw 33,000 U.S. soldiers between this month and the end of next year, replacing them with Afghan troops and police the U.S. is helping to train. The U.S. government contends that Pakistan has failed to eliminate similar safe areas for the guerrillas in its border districts, especially North Waziristan.

The complaints on both sides underscore the need and the difficulty for Pakistan and Afghanistan to maintain control all the way to the isolated, mountainous border between them, Abbas said.

Escape Route

Pakistani officials say the U.S. pullback from northeastern Afghanistan since late 2009 has given the Taliban an escape route from the Pakistan army’s offensives to clear the militants from two adjacent Pakistani districts, Bajaur and Mohmand.

“The best economy of effort is by conducting joint operations” to trap the guerrillas between U.S. and Pakistani forces, Abbas said.

“We know the border is very porous and the insurgents are using the terrain to their advantage,” said U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Kaye Sweetser, a spokeswoman for the U.S.- led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. “We’re constantly trying to deal with that.”

While ISAF “is aware of media reports from Pakistan” saying the Taliban have carried out attacks from Afghanistan, Sweetser said she didn’t immediately have independent information on the incidents.

Laying Blame

Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry spokesman, General Zaher Azimi, denied that any Pakistani Taliban maintain bases anywhere in Afghanistan. Pakistan is “trying to blame Afghanistan,” Azimi said in a phone interview.

Hundreds of Taliban fighters crossed the border from Kunar on mountain ridges as high as 3,700 meters (12,000 feet) to attack police stations in Pakistan’s Dir Valley on April 22 and on June 1, Abbas said. About 300 fighters crossed into Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal district last month and seized two border posts, killing 15 Pakistani security officers, he said.

As the Pakistani army has undertaken offensives since 2007 to re-capture districts taken over by the Taliban, the surviving Taliban forces have moved to Kunar and Nuristan to regroup, Abbas said. These include Taliban commanders Hakimullah Mehsud from South Waziristan, Faqir Muhammad from Bajaur and Abdul Wali from Mohmand, he said.

The U.S. military made its most prominent advance into Nuristan after 2006, establishing several small outposts to interdict guerrillas crossing into the province from Pakistan. After repeated Taliban attacks on the camps left dozens of U.S. soldiers dead, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, ordered a shift of troops from rural outposts to population centers, and the Nuristan bases were abandoned in 2009.

“ISAF posts were vacated and that created a void,” Abbas said. “Unless we resolve this, it will not allow the whole effort of bringing stability in the region.”

--With assistance from Eltaf Najafizada in Kabul. Editors: Paul Tighe, Mark Williams

To contact the reporters on this story: Haris Anwar in Islamabad at hanwar2@bloomberg.net; James Rupert in Islamabad at jrupert3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg in Hong Kong at phirschberg@bloomberg.net


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