Border dispute pits two US allies against each other

The presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan meet Tuesday to discuss, among other things, border security.

On a rocky hill, Noor Habib clutches a Kalashnikov rifle and looks down on the village that he can't return to, but which he has always considered home.

Mr. Habib says he and other villagers left town on early last week after it was attacked by Pakistani military forces. He claims the Pakistanis started the fight and the Afghans returned fire before escaping to nearby hilltops. Now that some 300 Afghan troops have joined him on the front lines, Habib is waiting for permission from the central government in Kabul to take his village back.

"The Pakistani forces want to take advantage of Afghanistan because they think it is a weak country," says Habib. "The militia forces have told some of our people, 'We will provide electricity and water for you if you become a part of Pakistan.' But we say, 'Our forefathers were Afghans, we are in Afghanistan. We don't need you.'"

For US coalition forces hunting Al Qaeda in southern Afghanistan, the escalation of tensions between two supposed allies is an unwanted and dangerous distraction.

Yet it's all part of a century-old dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan over their uncertain border. US forces deployed in the area are attempting to get commanders from both sides to lower their guns and start talking.

UN and US Embassy officials held negotiations between the two sides on Saturday where both agree to pull back from their most forward positions.

While Pakistan's Foreign Ministry says that the matter has been "discussed and resolved," only Afghan troops have pulled back thus far. And Afghan commanders also say that the Pakistanis have not returned 8 villagers the Afghans say were recently taken prisoner.

Border and security issues will be on the table when Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with Mr. Musharraf Tuesday in Islamabad.

The so-called Durand Line

The dispute in Bader Ki Kele, a village of around 200, is certainly not the first between the two nations.

Since 1893 when the British Empire in India drew the so-called Durand Line to separate India from Afghanistan, troops from either side have made sporadic incursions.

The problem is made worse by the fact that the Durand Line cuts deep into what had traditionally been considered the Afghan cultural sphere of influence. The northern Pakistani city of Peshawar, for instance, was once the winter capital of the Afghan kings.

Bader Ki Kele is not the only border town where Pakistani incursions have allegedly occurred. Troop crossings at the checkpoints in Babrak Tana and Jaji Maidan have also been reported.

Pakistan, for its part, denies any wrongdoing in this week's incident.

"No Pakistani soldier has stepped even an inch inside Afghan territory. That place where the Pakistani troops are is in Pakistani territory," says Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, spokesman for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. General Qureshi says he heard from his commanders on the scene that there had been firing in the air when Pakistani forces arrived, "but there was no exchange of fire between Afghans and Pakistanis."

Asked why Pakistan had decided to move its troops into a forward position at a time when the border was already tense, Qureshi said this was a decision for the local commander.

"I cannot answer what the tactical positions of our troops are for various reasons, but what happens in Pakistani territory is Pakistan's business," he said.

American forces, hoping to keep two of its crucial allies from fighting each other, now find themselves in the business of sponsoring negotiations. At Bader Ki Kele, a contingent of five Humvees have driven in from US military bases near Khost.

"It may be just a question of how thick is the border," says a US Army civil-affairs officer who only gives his first name, Kevin, for security reasons. "We're looking at grids on the map to see where everything is. We'll try to talk with both sides and see where this village should be. But we're not going to decide that ourselves," he adds.

Troops dug in

Faiz Mohammed, deputy commander of Afghan border-security forces and a leader in the US-funded joint forces against Al Qaeda, says that there is no question that Pakistani troops have invaded Afghanistan.

Stepping out on to a rocky outcrop overlooking Bader Ki Kele, he points to a group of brick buildings in the village.

"That's where the checkpoint used to be," he says. He then points to small camp of tents about a half-mile away where Pakistani soldiers in khaki uniforms and green berets can be seen digging trenches, arranging rock walls, and unloading boxes of ammunition from their pickup trucks. "And now look where they are."

He stops talking for a moment as a forward unit of Afghan forces reports gunfire from Pakistani lines. Commander Mohammed tells his men to keep their cool.

"This is a very dangerous situation," he says finally. "Our soldiers and their soldiers are less than 100 meters apart facing each other. It could be very dangerous if they start fighting."

Material from Reuters was used in this report

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