NATO-led forces Thursday killed up to 150 militants who were discovered infiltrating Afghanistan from Pakistan, providing what appears to be fresh proof that Taliban militants are staging their attacks from inside Pakistan's tribal zone.
The militants were seen gathering in Pakistan, and were subsequently tracked and targeted in the Margha Hills in Paktika, an Afghan province bordering Pakistan's restive tribal belt, according to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Thursday's attack is likely to bolster mounting international claims that Pakistan's tribal zone is a staging ground for attacks inside Afghanistan. Analysts in Pakistan cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying the reports would have to be verified and the identities of the militants established. But, if true, they added, the attack offers singular proof of cross-border infiltration.
"If [Thursday's attacks are] true, Pakistan will have to take cognizance of it. Pakistan cannot just wash its hands of this," says Talat Masood, a retired Army general who is now a political analyst in Islamabad.
Those critiques have risen to a crescendo since September, when the Pakistan government signed a deal with Taliban militants in North Waziristan to return their weapons, vehicles, and fighters in return for guarantees of peace.
NATO and Afghan officials argue that the deal has failed, and has essentially carved out a sanctuary for militants inside Pakistan to plan and launch their attacks. The number of attacks inside Afghanistan, they point out, has spiked dramatically since the September truce, particularly in areas bordering the tribal zone.
"As soon as [the militants killed Thursday] infiltrated Afghanistan from Pakistan, we engaged them," says Lt. Col. Angela Billings, a spokesperson for ISAF speaking by telephone from Kabul, Afghanistan. "They were tracked over a long enough period of time where we were certain of their status [as insurgents]," says Colonel Billings, adding that the size of the group coming from Pakistan was unusually large.
Billings would not divulge what area of Pakistan the militants were seen coming from, but added that Pakistani military liaison officers were continually informed of Thursday's operation. ISAF officials were also quick to point out that the Pakistani Army's cooperation was crucial to Thursday's attack.
"Insurgents are certainly coming across from Pakistan, but the Pakistan Army engaged with its colleagues across the border – ISAF and the Afghan Army – to do something about it," says Maj. Dominic Whyte, an ISAF spokesman speaking from Kabul.
Hours after the NATO strike, Pakistani helicopter gunships attacked supply trucks used by suspected insurgents for cross-border attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, a military spokesman said Thursday. The Pakistani Army attacked in North Waziristan Province, across the border from Thursday's NATO air assault.
The strike marks the Pakistani Army's first reported attack in the North Waziristan tribal region since a controversial September peace deal between the government and pro- Taliban militants that critics say has provided a sanctuary for insurgents.
The Army, acting on intelligence provided by the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, also used mortars and artillery in the attack Wednesday night in Gurvek, in North Waziristan, spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told The Associated Press.
He said it was not clear if any militants were killed in the assault.
The Taliban rejected the NATO report as "baseless and false" and said that no fighters had been killed. "Only civilians were targeted," a Taliban spokesman, Mohammad Hanif, said by telephone. Human rights groups have heightened their criticism of NATO forces as civilian casualties have mounted over the past several months.
If confirmed, the death toll would be the highest since September, when NATO troops forced the Taliban out of a district near the southern city of Kandahar, killing at least 500 insurgents.
Thursday's attack comes only weeks after Pakistan announced it would begin fencing and mining its 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan. On Wednesday, Pakistan implemented the first of several checkpoints using computerized fingerprint checking and identification cards at Chaman, the main border crossing into Kandahar.
The plan is highly unpopular with Pashtun tribes, who straddle both sides of the border and who turned out by the thousands in Afghanistan to protest the new check posts. Pakistani officials insist that the fencing is a preplanned mechanism to control border traffic, but critics have dismissed it as an ill-advised attempt to stave off rising criticism that the Taliban are operating from its borders.
Chris Alexander, deputy special representative of the secretary-general for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, was the latest voice to criticize Pakistan's deal-making with the Islamist militants inside its own borders. Referring to a UN sanctions list detailing 142 Taliban leaders, Mr. Alexander said in Kabul on Monday that some of those leaders "were in Pakistan for at least a part of 2006."
Pakistan immediately rejected his statement.
Thursday's attack puts in sharp relief that Pakistan's many proposed solutions – from stationing 80,000 troops on the border to cutting peace deals with militants – have so far failed, say analysts. Fencing is unlikely to prove any more effective, bitterly opposed as it is by tribal people and the Afghan government alike.
If there is a short-term solution, observers say, it lies in a smarter use of resources and greater interborder cooperation.
"It will take greater technology, and greater intelligence. Satellite imagery, drones, reconnaissance," says Mr. Masood, adding that cultivating the support of local tribes is the keystone to such an effort.
The urgency of better solutions seems to be growing. The scale of the attack in Paktika surprised some analysts, who say militants have rarely been seen infiltrating Afghanistan in such large numbers. The incident might point to a winter surge in preparation for attacks in spring, when snow in mountain passes will melt and heavy fighting is expected to resume.
"If true, it's significant. It shows that they are putting people in place now for the spring offensive. I didn't expect the Taliban to launch such attacks in the winter," says Ramiyullah Yusufzai, a journalist and political analyst in Peshawar, a provincial capital near the Afghan border.
In recent weeks, Paktika has emerged as a flashpoint of cross-border violence. On Dec. 31, militants based in Pakistan fired a succession of some 20 rockets into Paktika, although the ordinance caused no casualties, Pahjwok Afghan News reported.
• Wire services were used in this report.