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That Porous Afghan Border

Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen toured American bases in Afghanistan last week and heard reports from commanders that Taliban fighters are flowing back into the country after a winter hiatus spent refitting and training in their sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.

American reinforcements are also flowing into southern and eastern Afghanistan, part of the Obama administration’s 17,000 troop plus-up. The next few months will be hugely important as the U.S. and NATO race to get reinforcements established and operational before the Taliban can make any inroads among the many villages scattered about the borderland.

The growth of the Pakistani Taliban greatly complicates matters. As we reported a few weeks back, the various peace deals and treaties between the militants and the Pakistani army allow Taliban commanders, operating on interior lines, to shift large numbers of fighters from their eastern front, to the west, to fight NATO in Afghanistan. Former Petraeus adviser David Kilcullen told the House Armed Services Committee last week that similar deals inked in late 2006 led to a spike in Taliban infiltration into Afghanistan of 400 percent to 600 percent over the following months.

Can anything be done to stop fighters crossing the 450-mile long border? The short answer is no. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commander CJTF 101 told Mullen that 2,000 footpaths run across the border just in RC East alone, with another 200 paths that can handle pack animals.

During the Soviet-Afghan war, the Soviets faced the same problem of how to stem the flow of men and material across the border. With too few troops to seal the border, they turned to technology, and used remote seismic and acoustic sensors, such as the “Realiya-U” system, to detect Taliban caravans moving through mountain passes, and then called in artillery fire from bases near the border or activated electronic minefields.

But firing artillery concentrations or using scattered mines against possible targets picked up by remote sensors is not an option for the U.S. and NATO. The Soviets turned much of Afghanistan into a free fire zone so if artillery rounds fell on a band of wandering nomads versus a band of Taliban they cared very little. The U.S., on the other hand, is doing everything it can to limit “collateral damage,” as mounting civilian casualties from errant air strikes has led to growing anger among Afghans.

There had been hope that the growing American aerial drone fleet could establish an unblinking eye over the border region. Yet, the sheer size of the border and the number of possible infiltration routes makes that unrealistic, said Air Force chief Gen. Norton Schwartz, speaking before an audience at Brookings in Washington last week. He said the U.S. can’t adequately secure its own southern border, let alone the Afghan-Pakistan border. Schwartz said the Air Force is rushing more drones and manned aerial surveillance to the Afghan border to do what it can.

The Air Force ISR chief for Central Command, Air Force Col. Eric Holdaway, told me last week that aerial drone coverage in Afghanistan has increased more than 200 percent since summer 2007. Still, detection of cross border traffic, let alone identification of exactly who is walking through the mountains, remains as challenging as ever.

Positive identification is required before bombs can be dropped, Holdaway said, which means even if a drone picks up a group traversing the border, troops on the ground must have “eyes on” the potential target. Units operating in the border area, working the locals for information, can best determine whether those crossing the border are militants or “just members of a tribe going from one part of their tribal territory to another part of their tribal territory,” he said. The addition of more American troops along the border, coupled with more drones and manned surveillance aircraft in the skies above, should help matters as they work hand-in-hand.

That need for more troops to work with and among the people is why the chief of the most techno-centric of the military services spent much of his address last week talking about the “human capital” challenge of irregular warfare: it takes cultural and language experts working exhaustively on the ground to acquire that intimate knowledge of the enemy that is so vital, Schwartz said.

The lessons of irregular warfare teach that only when coupled with accurate and timely intelligence gathered from troops working among the people on the ground can air power be truly effective, he said.

There is a positive side to Taliban fighters flowing into Afghanistan: its likely to take some of the pressure off Pakistan where militants have been on the march in recent weeks, gobbling up villages and provinces in the face of little resistance. Newly arriving U.S. and NATO units will push hard against Taliban incursions, and will inflict heavy casualties on the militants as the annual fighting season picks up, a much needed change from the Pakistani army’s largely ineffective response so far.

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