Afghanistan's relationship with Pakistan is becoming increasingly strained, with the country threatening Tuesday to boycott a series of upcoming meetings about economic cooperation and coordinated assistance across the border and the cabinet issuing a statement that faulted Pakistan for being the "biggest exporter of terrorism and extremism to the world."
The heightened political stress, in a region where US bases have come under attack and militant activity has increased steadily since May, prompted presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain to address their plans for the war in Afghanistan during separate talks on foreign policy.
The boycott warning follows accusations by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), has been masterminding terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, reports CBS News.
The cabinet implicated Pakistan's spy agency in a string of recent attacks, including the Kandahar jailbreak, the beheading of Afghans in the Bajaur and Waziristan provinces of Pakistan, a recent suicide blast in Uruzghan province and the deadly bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul.
Karzai's ministers warned that unless Pakistan's leaders verifiably [rein in] the spy agency, upcoming talks scheduled between the two countries on assistance along the border region and economic cooperation will be postponed.
The Afghan allegations appear to have more traction in the wake of a report published last month by the RAND Corp, a US-based think tank, and funded by the US Defense Department. According to CNN, the report states that the ISI has been training and supporting insurgents in Afghanistan.
The study, "Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan," found that some active and former officials in Pakistan's intelligence service and the Frontier Corps – a Pakistani paramilitary force deployed along the Afghan border – provided direct assistance to Taliban militants and helped secure medical care for wounded fighters.
It said NATO officials have uncovered several instances of Pakistani intelligence agents providing information to Taliban fighters, even "tipping off Taliban forces about the location and movement of Afghan and coalition forces, which undermined several U.S. and NATO anti-Taliban military operations."
Pakistan is facing the heat on many diplomatic fronts. In the wake of the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, a meeting of the heads of the federal investigation agencies of India and Pakistan scheduled for this week has been canceled, according to Dawn, the leading Pakistani English-language daily.
But the Pakistan government has denied these allegations, arguing that Afghan lawmakers have no evidence to back up their claims. On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani chided Mr. Karzai for implicating Pakistan in a series of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, according to Reuters.
As a result of this verbal standoff, the focus of US politicians has turned from the war in Iraq to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Their renewed interest in the region is explained by an observation in the RAND report that the US will face "crippling, long-term consequences" if the militant presence in Pakistan is not eradicated.
Moreover, after an ambush on a US outpost in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday that killed nine US troops, there are increasing concerns about the US military's ability to contain Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan, reports the Associated Press.
Violence has been increasing in Afghanistan, and many people are questioning the operation, wondering whether the Taliban-led insurgency is gaining, rather than losing, momentum seven years after the fundamentalist Islamic regime was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion.
The BBC reported Wednesday that US and Afghan troops have abandoned the village where the attack took place Sunday.
A statement said the outpost had been temporary and that "regular patrols" in the area would be maintained.
Afghan police are continuing to fight insurgents after the pullout on Tuesday, local officials say.
The attack caused the biggest American loss of life in battle in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001.
US President Bush on Tuesday said the movement of militants from Pakistan to Afghanistan was a matter of concern and that the White House would investigate Mr. Karzai's allegations against the ISI, reports The News, a Pakistani English-language daily. Mr. Bush also emphasized that the US, Afghanistan, and Pakistan must cooperate against their common enemy in the war on terror.
The worsening situation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border also led presidential hopefuls to prioritize the war in Afghanistan during speeches on proposed foreign-policy initiatives and the war in Iraq. Speaking in Albuquerque, N.M., Senator McCain suggested that the US military learn from its successes in Iraq and increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. He also indicated that, as president, he would appoint a special Afghanistan "czar" to coordinate policy there. He was, however, reluctant to elaborate on his plans for tackling the militant threat in Pakistan, saying that he would "not telegraph what his strategy would be as commander in chief toward this sensitive diplomatic and military problem," according to the New York-based The Sun.
In a series of interviews, statements, advertisements and speeches over the past week, Mr. Obama has been laying out a broad vision of America's role in the world in an Obama presidency in which he has emphasized the application of soft power – the use of diplomacy and economic aid – over the use of force. And he has spoken of reducing American combat forces in Iraq and adding as many as 10,000 more troops to battle al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While the US considers an increased military presence in Pakistan, local observers are concerned that international intervention will undermine national security and sovereignty. In an opinion piece in The News, a defense analyst writes:
Our foreign minister insists that we cannot refer to US attacks against our territory as "unfriendly" while the prime minister tries to justify US threats against Pakistan by saying they fear another 9/11 attack on the US mainland. What about Pakistani fears of an impending US attack and its repercussions? Why is [Prime Minister] Gilani silent on that count?
Is the prime minister going to also justify a US military attack against us in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] region as a response to US fears? As it is, he has still not accepted the fact that the US has been attacking our territory as and when it has seen fit. The only reality is that they may now opt for a more large scale operation inside of Pakistan which may require their ground forces to come in and stay for some time.
According to The Christian Science Monitor, observers argue that international intervention is required along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border because the Pakistan Army and the new coalition government remain unclear as to how to handle the challenge posed by the militant presence in the country.
As the militancy growing out from Pakistan's tribal region trickles across the border into Afghanistan and also hits back home in major cities, military strategists and the new government are hard pressed to find easy answers on how to address it....
[The] government, says Talat Masood, a security analyst and a retired lieutenant general in the Pakistan Army, "is shying away from making any hard decisions." The Army, he says, is not being given clear instructions or a mandate from the government, which seems to lack direction in the face of a multifaceted challenge. "There seems to be no coordination between the different security agencies, and they will not succeed out there without a coordinated effort," he says.