NATO and the Afghan-Pakistani Border

Taliban fighters have stepped up their attacks along the Afghan-Pakistani border as the United States hands over control of southern Afghanistan to NATO forces, freeing up American troops to try, once again, to stem the flow across the frontier.

August 3, 2006, 8:00 am (EST)

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Heavier-than-expected resistance by insurgents in southern Afghanistan coincides with the U.S. military’s handover of command of multinational forces in the region to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The transfer will allow the U.S. military to shift more of its troops to the troublesome border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The area has recently emerged as a haven for Taliban insurgents; both militants and weapons cross the border with remarkable ease. Pakistan, which has been criticized internationally for its inability to clear its northern frontier of insurgents, has deployed a sizeable army along its border and pledged to work more closely with NATO-led forces in southern Afghanistan.

What is the status of the insurgency along the Afghan-Pakistani border?

Taliban and al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents effectively control much of northern Waziristan, a hilly region in northwest Pakistan that is half the size of New Jersey. The area doubles as a sanctuary for Islamist guerillas to launch attacks and spirit arms, drugs, and fighters across the border into Afghanistan. The bulk of the insurgents along the border are ethnic Pashtun, Afghanistan’s main Sunni sect. They have developed a vast network of camps and safe houses in northern Pakistan to arm, equip, and train Taliban fighters and have adopted many of the terrorist tactics employed by insurgents in Iraq, including the use of car and roadside bombs, as well as targeted strikes against infrastructure projects. There are no official estimates available of the number of fighters in the region, but a senior Pentagon official, who insisted on anonymity, says "around 5,000 is not a bad guess."

What has Pakistan done to secure the border?

Pakistan deployed roughly 80,000 troops last fall to the border region. But Peter Tomsen, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under George H. W. Bush, suggests its use of military force has only driven more local Pashtuns to join the Taliban-led rebellion.

In addition, Pakistan has been criticized by U.S. and Afghan officials for not doing enough to secure its border and arrest Taliban leaders, including the elusive Mullah Omar. President Pervez Musharraf called claims Pakistan is harboring terrorists or Taliban leaders "humbug and nonsense;" he says Pakistan security forces have killed a number of high-ranking Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, including Hamza Rabia, the group’s chief of external operations, and arrested several others, including Syed Mohammad Hashim, who was behind the 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl. "Pakistan has allowed the Taliban leadership to operate above ground for many years and operate training camps across the border," Tomsen says. "Pakistan’s military intelligence knows what’s going on in every square meter along the border." Experts say there are roughly 20,000 madrassas—or Islamic religious schools—in the frontier areas, most them funded by money from the Gulf.

Another problem, experts say, is that Pakistan’s parliament, one-fifth of which is composed of Islamist fundamentalists, and senior members of its military tacitly support the Taliban and abet their activities in Waziristan and elsewhere. "President Musharraf is in a very difficult situation," says the Pentagon official. "Much of the Pakistani population supports Islamic radicalism, so he’s limited in the amount he can do." According to a recent Pew poll, just 30 percent of Pakistan’s population supports the U.S.-led war on terror.

What is the makeup of the multinational military force near the border?

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fields 18,000 troops in Afghanistan, the bulk of which are British, Canadian, and Dutch (the force also includes non-NATO allies like Australia and Macedonia). Roughly 8,000 of these forces will be deployed to Afghanistan’s southern border, double the size of the American contingent previously stationed there. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, however, the NATO forces lack the helicopter lift capacity that made U.S. forces less vulnerable to ambush. NATO forces have been present in the country since 2003, but were mostly relegated to peacekeeping and humanitarian-assistance missions in Kabul or the relatively stable provinces in the north or west. Of the roughly 22,000 U.S. troops scattered throughout Afghanistan, a larger number are expected to be deployed to the unstable Afghan-Pakistani border region. Contrary to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s pledge last spring to draw down 3,000 American troops from Afghanistan, U.S. military officials say they have no immediate plans to pull out of the country and expect to maintain current troop levels for at least another three to five years.

Have these forces been effective?

Their record is mixed at best, experts say. Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan, three of Afghanistan’s southern provinces, have emerged not only as Taliban safe havens but also heavy opium poppy-producing areas. "It is a daunting task that NATO has taken on in a country that ranks 173 out of 178 on a basic index of human development," wrote CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times, "whose economy is more dependent on illegal drugs and foreign aid than any other nation." Taliban forces in the south have sabotaged a number of reconstruction projects (in northern provinces, so-called provincial reconstruction teams have proved much more effective). NATO, despite its mandate, also has some disadvantages. Without helicopters, NATO soldiers rely on road travel, which exposes them to more suicide attacks and roadside ambushes.

Is the number of attacks against coalition forces rising?

Yes. Since 2002, annual attacks against multinational forces have spiked from forty-five to nearly 200 last year, according to the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident Database; meanwhile, coalition fatalities have climbed from roughly sixty in 2002 to over 300 in 2005. The first half of this year has been the bloodiest yet, with sixty-eight reported coalition casualties, the bulk of them American soldiers. Part of the problem, says Paul Moorcraft, director of the London-based Center for Foreign Policy Analysis, is a lack of coordination between the U.S.-led military campaign to flush out insurgents and the British-led efforts to reconstruct Afghan infrastructure and train local troops, as well as conflicting rules of engagement among various NATO members present. "Some of the NATO contributors regard this war as another U.S. mess, and don’t want their troops to be much more than the armed wing of [the relief organization] Oxfam," Moorcraft writes in Business Day. Also, Boot adds, unlike U.S. troops, some NATO soldiers are prohibited by their governments from using tear gas and other chemicals for crowd control. "This can become a major headache for ISAF commanders when figuring out how to deal with riots of the kind that rocked Kabul in May," he wrote.

How effective have Afghan forces been in securing the border?

Afghan troops, whose ranks continue to grow, have led some successful counterterrorism operations and arrested a few terror suspects in the border region, but lack experience, equipment, and training. "They’re good eyes and ears for us," Tomsen says. The Afghan National Army (ANA) comprises 26,000 personnel, while the police force numbers over 54,000. "In Afghanistan, the newly raised national army, trained by the coalition, has done rather better than its Iraqi counterpart," writes Moorcraft. The ranks of the ANA are expected to climb to 70,000 by 2008. The ANA has bore the brunt of casualties in the border region, experts say.

Why has it proven so difficult to secure the Afghan-Pakistani border?

First, Taliban leaders know the terrain near the border and the local population intimately. A second problem has also been an inability to rebuild the region after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Tomsen says. "Our overall reconstruction in Afghanistan in the south and east has been a lot of promises with very little product to show for it," he says, pointing to the lack of security. There was a window of opportunity after U.S. forces secured the region from 2001 until 2004, but the lack of progress on rebuilding shattered infrastructure shifted the local Pashtun population’s allegiances over to the Taliban, hindering the U.S. military’s intelligence-gathering ability and providing fertile recruiting ground for radical Islamists. "Afghans are not ideological," Tomsen adds. "They’re not pro-U.S., pro-Pakistan, or pro-Taliban. They go where the wind is blowing, where they’ll get maximum benefit. And right now the wind is blowing in the Taliban’s favor."

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