Karzai warns Pakistan's new leadership

Taliban incursions anger Afghan leader

June 16, 2008|By M. Karim Faiez and Laura King | M. Karim Faiez and Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - The president of Afghanistan threatened yesterday to send troops into Pakistan if Taliban fighters holed up there continue to cross the border and attack his country.

"Afghanistan has the right of self-defense," President Hamid Karzai told journalists at his presidential palace. He specifically threatened to target Baitullah Mahsud, the self-declared commander of Pakistan's Taliban movement, who has boasted of sending fighters into Afghanistan.

The comments were the Afghan leader's sharpest warning yet to Pakistan's new leadership, which has been conducting negotiations with Islamic militants, including Mahsud, based in the tribal areas adjoining the border.

In response to the warning, Pakistan said it would consider any such strike by foreign forces inside its territory a violation of its sovereignty. "We hope that it is not the re-initiation of the blame game by Afghanistan," Foreign Office spokesman Mohammed Sadiq said in a statement.

In Pakistan, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said his country is a sovereign state that wants good relations with its neighbors. But he said the Afghan-Pakistan border is too long to prevent people from crossing, "even if Pakistan puts its entire army along the border."

"Neither do we interfere in anyone else's matters, nor will we allow anyone to interfere in our territorial limits and our affairs," Gilani told the Associated Press. "We want a stable Afghanistan. It is in our interest. How can we go to destabilize our brotherly country? Such kind of statements will not be taken well by the people of both countries."

Analysts expressed doubt that Karzai would make good on his threat to send Afghan troops on cross-border raids but said the remarks reflected rising frustration on the Afghan leader's part.

"It seems like more of a symbolic declaration rather than something that would really happen, but it shows the kind of pressure he is under," said analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general.

The inability of Afghan and Western forces to contain the insurgency in Afghanistan, more than six years after the toppling of the Taliban movement, has hurt Karzai's domestic popularity and credibility at a time when he is preparing to stand for re-election.

Violence in Afghanistan has been edging upward in recent months, and NATO and U.S. officials have charged repeatedly that militants continue to find haven inside Pakistan as the warmer weather brings a surge in battlefield activity.

Afghan forces have been trying, with little success, to round up hundreds of prisoners who escaped in a brazen jailbreak staged Friday by the Taliban in the southern city of Kandahar. Afghan officials said 15 insurgents had been killed in the manhunt, but only five prisoners were reported recaptured.

Karzai himself survived a fourth assassination attempt six weeks ago, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.

NATO- and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan also have been absorbing heavy blows. Four Marines were killed Saturday in a roadside bombing, the heaviest U.S. toll in a single incident this year. Military officials said Friday that fatalities among U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan last month had for the first time exceeded the toll in Iraq during the same period.

During the past year, Pakistani and Afghan leaders had toned down mutual accusations of lax policing of the countries' rugged 1,500-mile border. But Karzai's outburst could reignite long-standing ill will between two crucial U.S. allies.

Pakistan has issued a sharp protest over a cross-border clash last week in which 11 of its paramilitary troops were killed, apparently in U.S. airstrikes. The incident is under investigation, but the U.S. military has suggested that the strikes came after Afghan troops came under fire from insurgents who fled into Pakistan.

M. Karim Faiez and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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