Civilians Trapped in Undeclared Afghanistan-Pakistan Border War

Kabul, Afghanistan — It’s one of the most serious and internationally under-reported stories of the conflict here: the undeclared and intensifying border war between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Residents of villages in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar and Nangarhar provinces have reported shelling coming from the Pakistani side of the border and provincial authorities in Kunar say hundreds of families –which could easily mean several thousand people in total– have fled their villages to escape the bombs that killed dozens of civilians over the past month.

Afghan scholar and civil society activist Orzala Ashraf Nemat wrote in a recent essay for the Guardian:

Today I spoke with Ahmad, a friend from Kunar province. He told me: “The greatest concern for people in this region is the increase in rocket attacks from the Pakistani border side, which continues to take the lives of ordinary villagers over the past months. This is more scary to me than thinking of US military drawdown. We are worried about a direct invasion by Pakistani forces, even as the world is watching.”

Reports of Pakistani soldiers crossing the border for raids against Afghan militants have proliferated in the Afghan press over the summer and public anger toward Pakistan, which many Afghans accuse of fueling the war in their country, is bubbling over everywhere from tribal gatherings to call-in radio shows to Twitter.

Pakistan’s military has denied involvement in the shelling of Afghan territory and has attributed the shelling to “stray rounds” and has blamed the bulk of shelling incidents on Pakistan-based militias outside of its control. The Pakistani government has also rebuked its Afghan counterpart for allowing Afghan militant groups to terrorize Pakistani villages and attack Pakistani soldiers.

In early June, hundreds of militants from Kunar crossed the border and attacked a village in Pakistan. The incursion triggered a battle that last for two days and ended with at least 66 people dead –35 attackers, 28 Pakistani soldiers and three Pakistani civilians– as well as several houses and schools destroyed.

The surviving Afghans reportedly slipped back over the porous border that night, carrying their dead and wounded with them. Pakistan’s foreign ministry lodged an official complaint with the Afghan government.

But such incidents are nothing new along the border. Shia tribes in Pakistan’s northwestern Kurram Agency have been under siege from Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups for years, as Al Jazeera’s Mujib Mashal reported:

After the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul, and Pakistan’s crackdown on radical elements in Punjab, the tribal areas became the hub of both Pakistani and Afghan insurgents. But many among the armed groups consider Kurram’s Shia tribes – who refused to shelter fighters – as apostates. And Kurram’s Shia paid a heavy price as a result.

Despite signing a peace deal with the Taliban in 2008, Kurram’s Shia tribes remain effectively under a blockade three years later.

Escaping the region has become a difficult task. For residents to make it to Peshawar, the nearest Pakistani city, they have to first go into Afghanistan. That route has often been closed due to military operations by the Pakistani army. And even if they make it through, they face tremendous risks in Afghanistan – because the same fighters are active across the border.

“People cannot even travel there to bury their dead,” a local human rights activist told Al Jazeera in condition of anonymity, due to the risks involved in discussing the matter.

With weapons and fighters flowing freely between the two countries, the complex war in Afghanistan’s east is inseparable from the conflicts in adjacent Pakistani territory.

One notorious example of this lethal interdependence is Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), the group headed by wanted Afghan terrorist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Cold War era ally of the United States who is held responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in Kabul during factional battles in the nineties.

Unchecked by the Pakistani government, Hekmatyar’s group runs the enormous Shamshatoo Afghan refugee camp as its own authoritarian mini-state, complete with a secret police force and mandated indoctrination of children with HIG’s violent ideology.

Hundreds of children from Shamshatoo have disappeared in recent years and later resurfaced in a training camp for HIG fighters in Nangarhar province.

Pakistani strikes against other Afghanistan-based groups, meanwhile, are taking a bloody toll on locals. Throughout June, the Afghan press reported civilians dying at a rate of 6 to 10 per week in cross-border shelling.

Then, on June 28, Aminullah Amarkhel, the eastern regional commander of the Afghan Border Police alleged that artillery shells launched from Pakistan into Kunar the day before had killed 20 civilians, an unverified figure that, if correct, would make the attack the single deadliest yet in the low-level border conflict.

Infuriated, Kunar’s provincial police chief asked Kabul to allow the men under his command to retaliate in kind to future attacks. When the government urged the men to tone down their rhetoric, Amarkhel offered his resignation.

“They [Pakistani forces] deny attacks into Afghanistan, and I’m responsible as the commander in eastern zone, because people with bodies of their loved ones on their backs come to me,” he told Tolo News.

Tribal leaders in Nangarhar and Kunar rallied around Amarkhel and urged him to stay in his position. They also promised to send their own militia fighters to support the Border Police in any confrontation with Pakistani forces, according to a local researcher who attended several tribal large tribal gatherings in Nangarhar in the past few days.

Describing the affected villages he visited in Kunar, the researcher, who requested anonymity because he often travels to Taliban-controlled areas, told me, “The whole place really looks like a war zone. The artillery shells have destroyed the compounds. Animals are dead and many people have left. The UN has not been able to get into the area, although some people who have moved [away from the border] have been helped by UNHCR.”

“In [Nangarhar’s prinvicial capital] Jalalabad, the people are so angry,” the researcher said. “They are demonstrating, asking the security forces to fire artillery into Pakistan, and screaming that they are getting no help, no assistance [from the government in Kabul].”

Alarm over the attacks might not yet be resonating in the power circles of Kabul the way it is in the east, but it is resonating. In late June, the president and the ministries of defense and foreign affairs warned Pakistan to cease strikes against Afghan territory and parliamentarians demanded that their government authorize military action against Pakistan if the shelling continues.

On July 2, hundreds of Kabul residents took the streets in protest against Pakistan. They gathered in front of the compound that houses the office of the UN Special Representative and shouted slogans against Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency.

Caught between the two countries’ militaries and half a dozen militant groups (not to mention US and NATO airstrikes) are the unlucky civilians of the battered borderlands on both sides.

Reporting of violence in these areas has been badly hampered by the presence of militant groups and the security forces’ hostility toward journalists. Local and international media have been forced to rely on unverifiable and often conflicting accounts from local officials and a handful of aid workers.

“It is difficult to independently verify what is happening in the remote mountain region that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Pakistani Reuters reporter Mian Saeed-ur-Rehman admitted.

At present, no one really knows how many civilians have been killed.

With tempers in Kabul and Islamabad rising and neither side wanting to actually solve the problem of cross-border militancy, the undeclared border war is poised to escalate indefinitely, inflicting ever more suffering on the civilian populations caught in the line of fire.