Events along the ever-volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border this month have exposed deep fault lines in the anti-terrorism alliance among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and officials on all sides say their joint efforts against militants in the region are now highly precarious.
The heightened tension comes as militant extremists and the United States have both become more aggressive in their tactics, with the Pakistani government caught in between.
Two incidents in particular, which each killed more than a dozen people, have revealed just how tenuous relations among the countries have become.
In the first, U.S. missiles struck a house in the Pakistani village of Damadola where Ayman Zawahiri, the deputy leader of al Qaeda, was thought to be having dinner. In the second, three days later in the Afghan town of Spin Boldak, a man drove a motorbike into a crowd gathered to watch a wrestling match and blew himself up.
Because the incidents took place on opposite sides of the border, they elicited responses with vastly different focuses. After the U.S. missile strike, thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets to condemn the United States. After the suicide bombing, thousands of Afghans took to the streets to condemn Pakistan.
The United States -- long frustrated because its soldiers are in Afghanistan while most of the militants they are hunting are believed to be in Pakistan -- has begun using unmanned aircraft known as Predators armed with Hellfire missiles to reach across the border. Pakistani officials are apparently notified in advance of such missions, and assist with intelligence. But the angry public response there to this month's attack raised questions about whether the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf -- which has sought to cultivate ties to the West without alienating radical Islamic groups at home -- can handle the domestic political fallout.
Afghanistan, for its part, has applauded the more aggressive U.S. stance. Afghan officials say they want the United States to go even further to stop Pakistan-based militants, who are hitting hard at a time when international commitments to securing Afghanistan have come into doubt. Meanwhile, along the border, tensions continue to rise.
‘Long live Osama!’
"We have a lot of grief in our hearts," said Abdul Hakim Jan, an Afghan tribal leader who helped organize a protest beside a border crossing Wednesday following the deadliest suicide bombing in Afghanistan in the four years since the fall of Taliban rule. "All the terrorists and the enemies of Afghanistan are because of Pakistan. They are receiving their training there and they are being sent to Afghanistan for attacks."
Pakistani tribal leaders, for their part, look a few miles west for the source of their troubles: the American military presence in Afghanistan. Throughout the past week and continuing Sunday, tens of thousands of Pakistanis have participated in boisterous rallies at which protesters burned effigies of President Bush, chanted "Long live Osama!" and denounced the Pakistani government for cooperating with the United States.
"People are so angry that this could become a major movement against the American slaves who are ruling Pakistan these days," said Liaquat Baluch, a leader of Jamaat-i-Islami, the country's largest Islamic party.
Volatility in the border region is nothing new. For centuries, the rugged, mountainous area has been largely beyond the control of any government. Both sides of the border are populated by religiously conservative Pashtuns, who in recent decades have freely transported money, drugs and weapons back and forth across the porous boundary.
But since the United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the border has taken on special significance. On the Afghan side, the United States has 19,000 troops who provide crucial support for the government and who enjoy a relative degree of popularity. On the Pakistani side, U.S. troops are officially forbidden to operate. As a consequence, many Islamic militants who found sanctuary in Afghanistan before Sept. 11 reportedly have taken refuge in the semiautonomous tribal areas where sympathies for al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, run high.
Until recently, the United States had been dependent on raids by Pakistani security forces to catch the fugitives, with mixed results. But in the predawn hours of Jan. 13, the United States used a different tactic, firing Hellfire missiles from drones in a bid to kill Zawahiri. Pakistani and U.S. intelligence sources have said they expected him to show up for dinner at a house in Damadola, but they now believe he was not there.
The missiles killed at least 13 others. After the attack, local officials said that only villagers were killed, among them women and children, who were buried nearby. But Pakistani intelligence sources have since asserted, without offering proof, that a handful of foreign al Qaeda militants also died, possibly including its chief explosives expert, a son-in-law of Zawahiri and an operational leader in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government's response has been as conflicted as the reports. Some officials joined with the protesters in vehemently denouncing the attack, while others acknowledged that militants operate in the area. Even as the Foreign Ministry lodged a formal objection with the U.S. Embassy, Musharraf stayed silent in public, except to warn his countrymen not to harbor terrorists.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri acknowledged in an interview that the strike has put stress on the government, which since 2001 has walked a fine line of assisting the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign -- and receiving billions of dollars in aid in return -- while also trying to appease radical Islamic constituencies at home.
"Such an action creates immense internal problems for us as the perception grows that the U.S. has no respect for our sovereignty," Kasuri said.
U.S. officials, however, say Pakistan's objections amount to posturing. According to American military and intelligence sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, Pakistan had signed off on this month's strike beforehand and had even assisted with gathering intelligence.
The use of Predator drones to strike targets in Pakistan is relatively new, and several security officials said it could not happen without the consent of the Pakistani government. There have been at least three such attacks since last May, and one in December reportedly succeeded in killing a senior al Qaeda commander, Hamza Rabia.
Will Predator attacks continue?
But now, it remains unclear whether Predator attacks will be allowed to continue.
On Saturday, in a meeting with U.S. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, Musharraf said attacks such as the one aimed at Zawahiri "should not be repeated," according to Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who has made similar statements, is expected to raise the issue with President Bush when they meet at the White House this week.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official, however, said after Musharraf's comments were reported that nothing was likely to change in terms of actual U.S. and Pakistani efforts at hunting militants.
"Proper protest has been made, but this will not alter the ground rules and intelligence cooperation with the U.S. It will continue as usual," the official said.
The latest U.S. missile strike came as attacks by militants have been on the rise in Afghanistan, particularly in southern and eastern areas bordering Pakistan. In a country where suicide attacks have been rare, Afghan officials blame foreigners for a series of devastating bombings that are taking an ever larger toll among civilians.
"It is difficult for me to imagine how it can happen without some kind of support from outside Afghanistan," said Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Others direct blame squarely at Pakistan.
"We were using Pakistan as a base during the resistance times," said Hakim Taniwal, governor of Paktia province, referring to the U.S.-funded guerrilla war against Soviet occupation troops during the 1980s. "Now al Qaeda and Taliban are also using the Pakistani side to attack in Afghanistan."
Afghan government officials are feeling especially vulnerable now because the United States announced late last year that it would reduce its troop strength from 19,000 to 16,500. NATO soldiers are supposed to fill the gap by taking over operations in the south, but one country seen as pivotal to that transition, the Netherlands, has been publicly wavering over whether it will send troops.
‘A defensive insurgency’
Meanwhile, the Taliban, al Qaeda and other groups that are trying to destabilize the nascent Afghan government appear to be taking advantage of the uncertainty.
"At the strategic level of war, this is a defensive insurgency," said Chris Mason, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington. "They're inserting just enough insurgents to shut down meaningful reconstruction in the south and keep the population on the fence."
Khan reported from Karachi, Pakistan.