Dozens of Afghan civilians have been killed or injured by the artillery fire and at least one round landed about 2.5 miles from an American base a few weeks ago. One illumination round fired over an American patrol at night compromised their position.
While Afghan and US officials are in talks with Pakistan to end the strikes on militants, US soldiers experiencing the direct effects of the artillery fire are caught in an uncomfortable middle ground. Commanders say the longer it takes to find a solution, the greater the risk of fueling the insurgency and alienating locals from the Afghan government.
“That’s my biggest concern, that this Pakistani issue will just increase militancy among the population,” says US Army Capt. Michael Kolton, who commands the Bravo company in the 2-27 Infantry Battalion in Kunar.
In recent weeks, Afghan government officials estimate that more than 700 Pakistani rockets and artillery rounds have been fired at targets on the Afghan side of the border. Although some rounds have killed civilians, the Pakistanis are likely targeting insurgents who have carried out attacks inside Pakistan and take refuge in the mountains of Afghanistan.
“It’s important that the [American and Pakistani] units talk to each other across the border. We have common goals,” says US Army Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, commander of the 2-27 Infantry battalion.
Hurdles for communication
The US military has been working to establish communication with its Pakistani military counterparts, but has faced a number of difficulties. Given the tense state of US relations with Pakistan, high-level coordination can be a loaded issue and involves a considerable process.
“There are bureaucratic lanes that have to be executed in order to do those things, but we’re closing the gaps on those things to try to make it more efficient for us,” says Maj. Pat Stitch. He oversees brigade operations for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. “It’s not as if you can just drive over there and hunt down the first guy you see in uniform and say, ‘Hey, what’s your boss’s phone number?’ There’s a little more to it than that.”
Given the sensitivity of the issue, military officers are hesitant to speak about the issue in detail, however, the problem of coordination is likely more a bureaucratic challenge at this phase. The Monitor was able to find the phone numbers of Pakistani Army officers involved in shooting artillery into Afghanistan within several hours by making calls to people in Pakistan. The officers declined to comment on the issue because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
For US soldiers, the rounds pose less of a tactical threat and more of a political threat. Numerous Afghan villagers and officials have expressed complaints and concerns to US forces in the area, calling on them to take action.
“It’s not that big on our minds here, but it’s definitely big on everyone else’s minds,” say US Army Lt. Jonathan Brown, a platoon leader in the 2-27 Infantry battalion.
When the rounds initially began falling, soldiers in Kunar were quick to communicate with villagers that they were not responsible to avoid allegations of NATO-caused civilian causalities. When villagers accepted this, US soldiers say villagers approached them demanding that the US Army use its resources to get revenge for them by attacking Pakistan.
As Afghan politicians have made it clear that they are addressing the issue through diplomatic channels, there appears to be renewed patience among locals.
When rounds began landing in Isalam Khan’s small village in Kunar’s Chigal Valley, one killed three children. He walked more than two hours to another village he thought would be safe, however, rounds soon began landing there, as well. At first some of the villagers wanted military action, but now they say it is better to try to resolve the issue through diplomacy.
“The fruit for tolerance is sweet, so let’s wait and see what happens. I don’t want there to be fighting in our area, so I’d be happy if they peacefully solve the problem,” says Mr. Khan.
As the US military continues its operations despite the shelling, the consequences of not finding a solution loom large. At stake is the Afghan government’s reputation, something the US military is working to improve. The issue is easily one that can be exploited by insurgents for both recruitment and destabilizing relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, say American military officers.
“What’s impossible to tell is: is it the Pakistani military doing it or are the insurgents firing mortars or something because they realize that’s a friction point between the two countries and they’re trying to just widen the gap?” says Lt. Colonel Wilson.