Taliban, artillery, and lies in Mohmand Agency
Shortly after midnight on Nov. 26, US attack helicopters rocketed and strafed two lightly manned observation posts located on the Anargai Ghakhi mountain peak in the Mohmand tribal agency, known as the Salala security posts, roughly one mile inside Pakistani territory. The deadly air blitz killed at least 24 Pakistani soldiers and injured 13 others, according to Pakistani officials. The heated diplomatic row between Pakistan and NATO over the incident has escalated, with Pakistan ordering the US to vacate a key airbase in Baluchistan and closing NATO's supply lines through Jamrud in Khyber and Chaman in Baluchistan.
Senior Western and Afghan officials told reporters on Sunday that a small group of US and Afghan forces on patrol in Kunar province were fired on first from positions inside Pakistani territory, prompting calls for close air support which wiped out the two Pakistani mountain posts. However, the Pakistani military remains adamant that the attack should have been avoided. Major General Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistan military, told the Guardian that he did not believe ISAF or Afghan forces had received fire from the Pakistani side. "I cannot rule out the possibility that this was a deliberate attack by ISAF," Abbas said. Afghan officials maintain that US and Afghan forces retaliated with airstrikes after coming under fire from the direction where the two military forts are located.
Pakistan's unprecedented response to the attack in Mohmand is curious, especially given the countless reports over the past six months of Pakistani military forts shelling Afghan territory from positions in Mohmand, Dir, and Chitral. One such incident took place on June 18, prompting a similar US gunship raid against a Pakistani military post one mile inside Pakistani territory, also in Mohmand. The June attack came after a number of artillery shells fired from Pakistani territory struck homes in the Shunkrai area of the Sarkani (Sarkanay) district in eastern Kunar province. At the time, Kunar's governor, Syed Fazlullah Wahidi, told Pajhwok Afghan News that the areas of Dangam, Shigal, and Sarkani were fired upon by Pakistani military positions for the better part of a week, with one strike killing four children in the Shigal district.
The Salala security posts are located in the Taliban-controlled Baizai area of Mohmand, a well-known hotbed of militant activity that has significantly impacted security on both sides of the border. Since March, numerous Taliban swarm attacks have ravaged Pakistani outposts in the region, prompting violent reactions from Pakistani forces who frequently shell suspected militant positions located in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar and Nuristan provinces. Pakistani forces reportedly killed 65 Taliban fighters in the Baizai area in June alone. On Sept. 1, however, the Pakistani military claimed that a massive security operation had secured 80-85 percent of Mohmand and that 72 soldiers, including three officers, had been killed in the offensive against militants in the tribal agency.
Baizai is a known transit point and safe haven for Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) commanders Maulvi Faqir Mohammad and Mullah Fazlullah, according to an Afghan analyst familiar with the situation who spoke to The Long War Journal on condition of anonymity. Both Afghan officials and TTP representatives have confirmed that Mullah Fazlullah frequents the area, and he is also known to bed down in Afghanistan's Nuristan province.
Taliban incursions on both sides of the border have successfully exploited a tense border situation to the breaking point. Afghan officials, including the Afghan Border Police commander in charge of the eastern zone, Brigadier General Aminullah Amarkhel, Kunar's Provincial Chief of Police General Ewaz Mohammad, and Kunar's Provincial Governor Syed Fazlullah Wahidi, have repeatedly accused the Pakistani military positioned in Mohmand, Dir, and Chitral of shelling Afghan territory this year.
Since May, Pakistan has shelled eastern Afghan border towns located in Khost; Nangarhar (Ghowshta district - Allakhel, Tareli, and Lakarai villages); Paktia (Dand va Patan district); and Kunar (Shigal, Sarkanay, Khas Kunar (Shankor village), Naray (Sawh village), and Dangam districts). The New York Times reported on July 3 that Pakistani rocket and artillery shells have killed 42 Afghans and wounded 48 in three provinces of eastern Afghanistan between May and August.
Previous calls from the Afghan Parliament for Karzai to sever ties with Islamabad in July over the cross-border shelling incidents failed to gain traction. Allegations of cross-border shelling continued unabated in September and October, prompting Afghanistan's eastern provincial officials to lobby the Karzai administration to hold Pakistan accountable for the reckless endangerment of Afghan civilians living in the border districts. On Oct. 12, representatives from eight districts in Kunar appointed two delegations to facilitate direct talks with Afghan government and Pakistan army officials concerning the shelling.
In mid-October, Afghan officials in Kunar claimed that Pakistan had fired 1,591 rounds into the province over the past six months, killing 27 people and injuring another 42; many of these attacks originated from strategic positions in Mohmand. The following is a short recap of recent reports on Mohmand violence and alleged cross-border shelling incidents:
- Sept. 1: Pakistani military officials claimed a security operation against militants secured 80-85 percent of the Mohmand Agency. The security offensive cost the lives of 72 Pakistani soldiers, including three officers. The area of Baizai remained outside the control of the Pakistani military.
- Sept. 11: Heavy clashes between Taliban gunmen and Pakistani security forces killed three people and injured nine others as an anti-Taliban lashkar (tribal militia) and Pakistani forces attacked militant positions in Soran Darra, Baizai, and the Kodakhel areas of Mohmand Agency.
- Sept. 24: Kunar's governor claimed the Pakistani army fired more than 300 artillery shells into eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces which caused human and property losses. About 250 shells of long-range artillery had been fired into Dangam district since Sept. 22 from Dir, according to Governor Wahidi. Two mosques and six houses were also damaged in the attacks.
- Sept. 26: The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan over recent artillery shelling into Afghanistan's eastern provinces. The same day, Kunar's governor claimed 10 artillery shells fired from Pakistan had struck the Dangam district.
- Oct. 8: The Provincial Government in Kunar accused Pakistani military units of firing 33 artillery shells into the province, with 20 of them landing in Narai and 13 others in the Dangam district; the shelling injured six people, killed 50 head of livestock, and destroyed three houses. Afghan government officials blamed the attacks on Pakistani units operating in Dir and Chitral districts.
- Oct. 15: Afghan officials claimed Pakistan fired at least 45 artillery shells into Kunar's Dangam district which injured a child and damaged several civilian houses.
- Oct. 16: Much to the ire of local residents, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told reporters that "most media reports about Pakistan's missile strikes into Afghanistan were exaggerated."
- Oct. 17: Kunar's Chief of Police told reporters that recent Pakistani shelling attacks killed 27 civilians and injured 42 others. Provincial council member Syed Sikandar Shah Bacha said Pakistani forces had recently shelled the border districts of Narai, Ghaziabad, Dangam, Asmar, Shegal, Marawara, Sarkano, and Khas Kunar.
Pakistan has denied the allegations of recklessly shelling the Afghan frontier, claiming that a few errant shells might have landed in Afghan territory, but has argued that Afghan militants have been rampaging garrison towns in northwestern Pakistan since May.
Although it is currently unknown what triggered the "tactical development" along the Afghan-Pakistan border on Nov. 26, given recent events in the area it is likely that the aerial destruction of the remote Pakistani outposts was prompted by either the movement of Taliban fighters between Kunar and Mohmand or by artillery salvos emanating from Mohmand, or both.