x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Afghan inquiry into Pakistani rockets fired across border

Pakistan has yet to give an official explanation for the salvos, but officials have hinted the rockets are aimed at keeping Afghanistan-based militants at bay.

KABUL // Afghanistan's parliament announced this week it will open an inquiry into Pakistan's rocket fire into Afghan border towns that killed dozens and left hundreds homeless.

The Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament, next week plans to send a 12-member delegation to Kunar and Nangarhar, two of the provinces hardest hit by the barrage, to assess the damage and identify victims in need of assistance.

Pakistan has fired more than 700 rockets and mortar shells into eastern Afghanistan in the past six weeks, Afghan officials say, killing at least 40 people and displacing hundreds more.

Pakistan has yet to give an official explanation for the salvos, but officials have hinted the rockets are aimed at keeping Afghanistan-based militants at bay.

"To this day, there are still mortars being fired from Pakistan into Afghanistan," said Hajji Sakhi, a member of parliament from Kunar who will be a part of next week's delegation.

Sahar Gul, a displaced resident from Kunar, said in a phone interview on Thursday that mortars were still being fired, landing in areas that had not yet seen any rocket fire.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, announced this week he would not respond with military force, sparking protests in Kunar's provincial capital of Asadabad.

"We need to be able to defend ourselves," said another MP from Kunar, Saleh Mohammed Saleh.

Tensions have long existed at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border - a 2,500-kilometre stretch that divides ethnic Pashtuns on either side - but never have the countries officially been at war.

Both nations are plagued by violence and Taliban insurgencies, and fighters are believed to easily slip back and forth over the rugged and mainly unguarded border.

Pakistan's military operations against some of the Pakistani Taliban's traditional strongholds near its border are believed to have pushed some of the militants into Kunar and the remote, north-eastern province of Nuristan.

There, Nato-led troops maintain a minimal presence and the Afghan government is similarly weak.

At least 12 Afghan Border Police (ABP) were killed in militant attacks on eastern border villages and outposts since June, according to the Afghan interior ministry.

Pakistan says Afghanistan-based fighters have killed 55 of its army and police in cross-border attacks in recent weeks.

"The Pakistani military is retaliating against militants who attack Pakistan from Afghanistan," said Ramiullah Yusufzai, editor-in-chief of Pakistan's News International, a newspaper in Peshawar. "And who escape back over the border every time."

But others warn that if Afghanistan fires back, it could open-up a new front in the war in Afghanistan.

Last year 2,777 civilians were killed in the conflict, a 15 per cent increase from 2009, the United Nations has said.

This year is already shaping up to be one of the most deadly of the war.

"If we respond with force, the result will be very clear," one former MP from Nangarhar, Farooq Meranei, said. "The fighting between Afghanistan and Pakistan will begin."

There are some 150,000 foreign troops now battling Taliban militants in Afghanistan, but western politicians are eyeing up exit strategies.

Nearly all international troops are set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Nato has remained tight-lipped about the skirmishes at the border.

Mr Meranei accused international troops of turning a blind eye to the shelling.

"Afghanistan's security should be guaranteed by the international community," said Mr Meranei. "Nato is still in Afghanistan, they have to help us."

Others say the bombardment is Pakistan's way of derailing efforts to secure a peace agreement between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban.

Pakistan has a long history of interfering in Afghan affairs, and some analysts say it's Pakistan's way of reminding Afghanistan of its regional and military might.

"Pakistan has always tried to destabilise Afghanistan," Noor Al Haq Ulumi, a former Afghan general in the communist-era army, said.

"They want to show the world that the Afghan government is weak and that it is unable to protect Afghans," he said.