One soldier was killed and two wounded, against 16 Taliban attackers dead in an assault on border posts in Bajaur Agency on Saturday. Around 200 militants are said to have been involved in the attack, which was repulsed with helicopter gunship and artillery support. The attackers retreated across the Afghan border after a three-hour firefight. The Afghan province of Kunar is opposite the Bajaur Agency, where Mullah Fazlullah, originally of the Swat Taliban and currently chief of an increasingly divided and fractured Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is based. This is not the first time such a cross-border raid has been mounted. As recently as May 25, an assault took place in the Mano Zangal area. Previously, we have witnessed massed attacks across the border by as many as 500 militants, indicating their ability to muster big numbers for such forays. Inevitably in the case of such cross-border clashes, Pakistan summoned an Afghan envoy to protest the attack from its soil, while the Afghan authorities accused Pakistani forces of killing at least four Afghan civilians in indiscriminate shelling into Afghan territory, a charge denied by the Pakistan foreign office.
This clash and the previous ones highlight the precarious security situation on the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border, particularly in the Bajaur salient. Mullah Fazlullah may have decided to overcome the fractious disputes between Mehsud factions in the TTP to concentrate on cross-border enhanced action. The influx of militants from Bajaur earlier and North Waziristan of late has obviously strengthened his hand in this endeavour. Also inevitably, such cross-border exchanges are more than likely to ratchet up tensions between the two neighbouring countries and the US/NATO forces on their way out of Afghanistan. Pakistan complains that previous such attacks from Afghan soil have not received the attention of the Afghan or western forces despite protests being lodged. One does not know the western forces’ attitude to the matter, but it would come as no surprise if the Afghans are not exactly unhappy to see Pakistan hoist by its own petard through its policy of creating and nurturing jihadi proxies, only to see such forces turning on and biting the hand that fed them for so long. Poetic justice, the Afghans could be saying with a quiet chuckle, for Pakistan’s interventions in Afghanistan over the last four decades. Whatever momentary satisfaction that may bring to the Afghans who feel hard done by at Pakistan’s hands, the inescapable fact is that it is in the interests of both sides to cooperate in the fight against their respective terrorists. One major obstacle to such cooperation is the continuing presence of the Afghan Taliban on Pakistan’s soil and their apparent freedom to mount attacks inside Afghanistan from such safe havens. We have argued for a long time in this space that Pakistan should seriously revisit its policy of using jihadi proxies for foreign policy objectives before the ‘reverse osmosis’ of Pakistani militants finding refuge across the border and mounting attacks on Pakistan comes to pass. Well, we seem to have arrived at that point by now. The critical policy reformulations that would see an abandonment of support to and the use of militant proxies is nowhere in the offing. Even if our security establishment has trimmed its sails to a more modest objective of ensuring the Afghan Taliban get a stake in power in Kabul rather than a total victory, this ‘reduced’ objective still pits us against the Afghans and their western backers. And arguably, the benefits of this policy have long ago been overtaken by its high costs (witness the emergence and growth of the home grown Taliban, who enjoy a nexus with foreign terrorists, al Qaeda, and the Afghan Taliban). To persist with a policy stance that has long ago been overtaken by developments in and around the region, is to repeat the folly until its serious consequences unfold. It is still not too late for Pakistan to see the wood, not just the trees, by becoming sensitised to the threat TTP terrorists based on Afghan soil will pose, particularly in the near future after the bulk of western forces have left Afghanistan by the end of the year. The window of opportunity to pre-empt and deal with this threat will not remain open forever, and may well snap shut by end-2014. *