On border, Pakistan-Afghan tensions erupt in gunfire

Bid to stem Taliban crossings has sparked clashes between troops, killing 10 Monday.

At a time when they are supposed to be targeting their common enemy, the Taliban, Pakistani and Afghan border troops instead turned their guns on each other near Paktia Province on Sunday, leaving eight dead and many more wounded.

On Monday, more violence ensued during a meeting called by US, Pakistani, and Afghan troops to calm the tension. At least one US soldier and one Pakistani soldier were killed, bringing the death toll to 10 and marking the deadliest in a series of tense standoffs over the Durand Line, the 1,500-mile-long border drawn in 1893 by British colonialists.

At a time when both countries are staring down a growing Taliban insurgency inside their borders, the violent escalation is a matter of grave concern for the international community.

"This is the last thing that Afghanistan and Pakistan need – to have their troops fighting against each other," says Samina Ahmed, the South Asia Project Director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, who says she worries that further escalations are possible. "It ups the ante."

At press time Monday, the details of the violence at the meeting were still a mystery. Afghanistan's Defense Ministry confirmed the incident, saying it took place in the Pakistani town of Parachinar in Kurram agency, just over the border from Afghanistan's Paktia Province. Several Pakistani, Afghan and US officers were attending, as well as a Pakistani provincial governor.

"One of the Pakistani officers shot at the Afghan and US delegation," says Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi by telephone from Kabul. He was unable to say what sparked the incident, but added that four coalition helicopters flew to the scene to provide security and remove the injured and dead.

Pakistan offered a different version. "After the meeting ended people were going back to the helicopters and some miscreants opened fire," says Pakistan's military spokesman, Major General Waheed Arshad. "One US soldier and one Pakistani soldier have died, and four U.S. soldiers and four Pakistani soldiers are also injured," he added.

The incident comes a day after Pakistan accused Afghan soldiers of firing on their troop positions in Kurram Agency, the scene of Sunday's violence. Officials from both countries confirmed that seven Afghans died and at least three Pakistani soldiers were wounded on Sunday after troops on either side of the border near Paktia engaged each other.

In addition to bullets, the two sides traded a volley of accusations on Monday, signaling a new low in the already-shaky relations between Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. As the two leaders continue to blame each other for failing to stop militancy, Taliban violence has reached record levels in both countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have always disagreed about the Durand Line. Pakistan sees it as a legitimate international border – an acknowledgement that has only provoked Afghanistan, which refutes the border and sees moves to tighten it as an intrusion on its sovereignty.

Both sides have eschewed practical diplomacy, opting instead for provocations like Monday, observers say. But many blame Pakistan for playing a more aggressive hand.

"In practice, Pakistan has done more than Afghanistan to undermine the status of the Durand Line as an international border," wrote Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin in an October 2006 report for the US Institute of Peace (USIP).

Most recently, Pakistan has provoked Kabul with its plans to fence and lay mines along stretches of the border. Last month, Afghan soldiers on the Afghan side of South Waziristan tried to tear down a section of fence erected by Pakistan, prompting Pakistani soldiers to open fire, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry. Pakistan's military denies that it was fencing in that area, but it has confirmed completion of a 15-mile fence in North Waziristan. The international community, meanwhile, has widely criticized the fencing plan as ineffectual.

"[T]he key to strategic success is disrupting the Taliban's command and control, mainly in Quetta and Waziristan, not wasting resources on the impossible task of blocking infiltration by easily replaceable foot soldiers across snow-capped mountains and trackless deserts," counsels Mr. Rubin's USIP report.

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