Pakistani officials voiced fears that a US-led offensive in southern Afghanistan could force Taliban fighters into this nation’s restive southwest, but said they had not asked the Americans to stop or slow the operation.
The concerns surfaced on Wednesday during a visit to Pakistan by special US envoy Richard Holbrooke, who assured Islamabad of Washington’s desire to coordinate on anti-militant operations, even as he noted that the Taliban still move freely across the Pakistan-Afghan border.
“We want to be sure that we share [military plans] with your government and your military ... so you can be prepared and coordinate, because a lot of different things can happen here,” he told reporters after meeting with Pakistan’s prime minister.
The US is keen on ensuring Pakistan’s cooperation in its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. For years, attempts to crack down on militants in Afghanistan have been undermined by their ability to find safe havens across the border in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s role is especially critical now that the US has sent thousands more troops to Afghanistan to take on a resurgent Taliban.
Early this month, some 4,000 US Marines launched an operation against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, which borders Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official said Islamabad has “reservations” about the Helmand offensive because militants crossing the border could further destabilize Baluchistan, long the scene of a low-level insurgency by nationalist groups seeking more autonomy.
NATO’s spokesman in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, said so far there was no sign that significant numbers of Taliban fighters were fleeing into Pakistan from Helmand and most were heading for safe havens “that are yet to be cleared” by NATO and Afghan forces.
Pakistani officials agreed, but said they had sent more troops to the 260km-long stretch of border from other parts of the northwest.
If a significant influx does occur, Pakistan may be forced to move troops from its border with India, the intelligence official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Despite Pakistan’s unease, a government security official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said Islamabad had not asked the US to stop or slow down the Helmand offensive. The operation is considered a key test of US counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and the US would likely have rejected any such request.
Meanwhile, the commander of the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat valley is alive and has not been wounded, contrary to reports by the military, his spokesman said yesterday.
The military said early this month that it believed it had wounded the commander, named Fazlullah, who has been on the run since April.