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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

It’s Pakistan, not the Taliban, we should worry about in Afghanistan

People cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan at the border town of Chaman, Pakistan. Photo: AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

On Tuesday, Afghan president Hamid Karzai made a startling announcement: He would not respond with military force to weeks of cross-border bombardment from Pakistan. The Afghan Parliament, which he was addressing, immediately called for him to sever ties with the Pakistani government.

The growing instability along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a critical issue. As the U.S. government contemplates its plans for the next two years of transition,  we shouldn’t be worrying about whether the Taliban might make a move, especially when a fully transitioned Afghanistan might soon be at war with Pakistan.

For the last several years, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s militaries have lobbed artillery shells at each other. It’s never been very intense — a dozen times a year, with a few dozen killed over several years. More people, in both countries, die in traffic accidents. But the rate at which these clashes take place is accelerating. In March, Pakistan fired on targets in eastern Afghanistan a dozen times, according to local officials; by June, the ongoing attacks had displaced hundreds of families over a broad swath of territory stretching from Nangarhar, directly east of Kabul, to Nuristan, in the northeast area.

Afghanistan, for its part, has fired back in the past, on occasion killing Pakistan civilians. Just last month, Afghan border police attacked checkpoints in Pakistan in retaliation to the artillery barrage. Despite this, the cross-border combat is very lopsided, with most of the attacks originating in Pakistan. The Pakistanis have a very good reason for this: They are hunting the Taliban militants that routinely cross the border to attack Pakistani villages.

This border fighting could have enormous consequences for the future of the region — and America’s role in it. In a recent article in The Guardian, a resident of the Kunar province, a violent area in Afghanistan’s northeast, explained that their greatest fear was not the Taliban, but Pakistan:

“The greatest concern for people in this region is the increase in rocket attacks from the Pakistani border side, which continues to take the lives of ordinary villagers over the past months. This is more scary to me than thinking of U.S. military drawdown. We are worried about a direct invasion by Pakistani forces, even as the world is watching.”

Part of President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan is to “transition” the country over to Afghan control — the control of the Afghan Army and Afghan Police. For years now, many Afghans, whether soldiers or civilians have said they want to fight not the Taliban but Pakistan. It is a situation ripe with the potential to spill over into outright war between the two countries, whatever the high-level efforts in Kabul and Islamabad to maintain calm.

The consequences of such a conflict are dire. Pakistani security forces have begun a major offensive against militants in the Kurram tribal area, which is surrounded on three sides by Afghanistan. As militants flee the onslaught, they flee into Afghanistan. On more than one occasion, Pakistan has responded by lobbing artillery into Afghanistan, occasionally killing those militants but also killing Afghan civilians. If Hamid Karzai cannot keep the Parliament and the growing public anger in the east at bay, he will face an overwhelming urge by his own people to respond, violently, to Pakistan’s relentless militarism along the border.

Some of the confusion over how best to respond can be traced back to the border itself. Afghanistan does not officially recognize the Durand Line as its eastern border, owing to an old dispute over whether the British “imposed” it on the Afghan king in 1893. At the same time, Pakistan does recognize the boundary as its official western border. This creates the somewhat ironic situation of Pakistan knowingly violating the territorial integrity of an Afghanistan that cannot recognize it as such. It also works in reverse, and is why U.S. incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistan, such as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, are so rare and noteworthy.

Either way, the fact that such a major problem centers on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, and not its southern provinces where troops have focused their energy the last two years, shows just how hollow the war strategy really is.

Ultimately, the solution to the border conflict will be some sort of political arrangement between Kabul and Islamabad: whether that means allowing hot pursuit of militants fleeing into either country, agreements about how to respond to intelligence of attacks near the border, or some other arrangement, will have to be determined through careful and deliberate negotiation.

U.S. strategy, such as it is, isn’t focused on the politics of the region; it is focused on an exit from the region. Because of that, the Obama administration might not be able to do much to prevent a full-fledged war from breaking out between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The attention and resources required — diplomats, monitors, an international framework for mitigating consequences — just aren’t there.