Pakistan's woes may be helping NATO in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Political turmoil in Pakistan may have stemmed the flow of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters into neighboring Afghanistan, as militants shift their focus to the government of President Pervez Musharraf, U.S. officials say.

Masked Pakistani pro-Taliban militants stand at a check post in Charbagh, a Taliban strong hold, near Mingora, the main town of Pakistan's Swat valley, lNovember 2, 2007. REUTERS/Sherin Zada Kanju

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress this week that the Pentagon is trying to determine whether a drop in the number of fighters crossing into Afghanistan is a by-product of a suicide bombing campaign in Pakistan run by al Qaeda and Taliban militants.

“They (militants) are now facing the other direction and sending some resources to try and attack, to try and undermine Pakistani stability,” Gates told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

The top commander of NATO troops in the eastern region of Afghanistan that borders Pakistan agreed, saying the number of fighters crossing into his area was down due in part to increasing security problems in Pakistan.

“Right now, as far as the infiltration, it’s actually been a little bit down lately,” Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez said.

“That’s due to several reasons. One, of course, is the instability and what’s going on in Pakistan and some of the challenges that are going over there, going over in Pakistan.”

The reduced flow of fighters -- down as much as 40 percent since November, according to U.S. officials -- could mark a significant opening for the Afghan government, some officials said.

It could allow NATO troops and the Afghan government to bring reconstruction dollars to that area and build loyalty among the local population, they said.

“It does open up a good opportunity,” said one U.S. official, adding that development activities could accelerate quickly if al Qaeda and Taliban fighters “leave us alone.”

Violence has soared in Afghanistan over the past two years, with the most attacks occurring in the east and south. NATO has about 15,000 troops, mostly Americans, in Afghanistan’s east.


Still, defense officials are divided over how big a role events in Pakistan are playing in the drop in Afghan border incidents.

Some say they think militant groups in Pakistan shifted their strategic focus away from Afghanistan after Musharraf ordered a bloody crackdown on Islamabad’s Red Mosque last summer. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden vowed retaliation over the killing of the mosque’s rebel cleric.

The danger to Pakistan’s stability was brought home to the Bush administration by the December assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, which Pakistan blames on al Qaeda-linked militant commander Baitullah Mehsud.

But others argue that border crossings and incidents may be down because of winter weather as well as NATO military operations that killed or captured Taliban leaders in 2007.

“My view is different. I think they’re down because, you go back to December 2006, the force there is twice the size it was,” said U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Pakistan.

Officials say they won’t know for sure until the spring, when snow-clogged routes through the mountainous border are once again passable. Fighting has traditionally surged then.

“It’s getting worse in Pakistan,” said Michael Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. “I think it’s fair to say. And there’s been some turning inward.”