World News

Western troop build-up sows alarm in Pakistan

MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - A build up of Western coalition forces on the Afghan border spread alarm on Tuesday among villagers in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan, a known stronghold of Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

The deployment will add to a mounting sense of foreboding in Pakistan that U.S. ground troops could be ordered into Pakistan on covert missions or hot pursuit to eliminate militants fuelling an insurgency in Afghanistan that appears stronger than ever.

An intelligence official, who requested anonymity, and villagers said hundreds of coalition troops had been airlifted to a border area opposite the village of Lowara Mandi.

“The movement of troops started last night,” the intelligence official said, adding that armoured vehicles and heavy weaponry had been brought in with them.

A villager said he could clearly see the troops.

“They were brought by helicopters. They are at the zero point,” Akmal Khan, a resident of Lowara Mandi, told Reuters, referring to the disputed international boundary.

“They haven’t moved towards this side.”

The deployment is in the vicinity of Camp Tillman, a forward operating base for U.S. forces that has come under regular rocket and mortar attack in the past.

The Pakistani military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said it was probably a routine movement and the media had created “unnecessary hype”.

Late last week a Pakistani newspaper, the News, reported large numbers of U.S. troops being moved close to the border between Afghanistan’s Khost province and Pakistan’s Kurram tribal region just to the northeast of North Waziristan.

A military spokesman at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul said the U.S.-led coalition did not comment on troop movements.


On Sunday, nine U.S. soldiers were killed when Taliban fighters overran their outpost near the border between the eastern Afghan province of Kunar and Bajaur, another militant-infested Pakistani tribal region.

The soldiers had only moved into the outpost days earlier and defences were not fully constructed. Their deaths marked the biggest single American loss in Afghanistan since 2005.

A Taliban spokesman in Bajaur welcomed the build up on the border as a chance to kill more Americans.

“It’s a gift that they’re coming here on our land and making it easy for us to kill our enemies, the enemies of Muslims,” Taliban spokesman, Maulvi Omar, told Reuters.

A series of incidents along the border, including drone aircraft missile attacks and cross-border firing, have fuelled fears in Pakistan that the U.S. military may be moving to a more offensive strategy having hitherto refrained from unleashing ground forces in Pakistani territory.

Western powers have been alarmed both by mounting casualties among troops in Afghanistan and by intelligence assessments that al Qaeda could organise strikes on Western soil having regrouped in tribal areas under Taliban protection.

U.S. operations inside Pakistan would risk turning more fiercely independent tribesmen towards militancy, and undermine Pakistani sovereignty at a time when a new civilian government is trying to assert authority in the turbulent nuclear-armed state.

The new government has sought the help of tribal elders to reach peace deals with militants, but there has been a spike in attacks in Afghanistan while Pakistan has held talks.

The U.S.-led coalition and NATO-led peacekeepers have around 71,000 troops in Afghanistan, 38 percent more than a year ago.

Pakistan has up to 90,000 troops stationed in border areas, and has lost more than 1,000 men fighting the militants since late 2003, yet it is dogged by accusations that it has failed to do enough to stop fighters crossing into Afghanistan.

For its part, Pakistan has said that Western and Afghan forces have failed to properly guard their side of the frontier.

Afghan officials suspect Pakistan has allowed the Taliban to survive in order to re-establish influence in Kabul once Western countries eventually withdraw their troops.

Pakistan denies the allegations, and successive governments have stated their desire to see Afghanistan stabilise.

With reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Kamran Haider; writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Jeremy Laurence