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Afghans Face Obstacles In Securing Pakistan Border

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Afghans Face Obstacles In Securing Pakistan Border

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Afghans Face Obstacles In Securing Pakistan Border

Afghans Face Obstacles In Securing Pakistan Border

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/101275643/101408024" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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First in a two-part series

Afghan Maj. Gen. Nabi Jan Molakheil gestures to the Pakistan border from an outpost. i

Afghan Maj. Gen. Nabi Jan Molakheil faces the Pakistan border from an outpost in Khost province. Molakheil heads the border police in Khost and two neighboring provinces. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Afghan Maj. Gen. Nabi Jan Molakheil gestures to the Pakistan border from an outpost.

Afghan Maj. Gen. Nabi Jan Molakheil faces the Pakistan border from an outpost in Khost province. Molakheil heads the border police in Khost and two neighboring provinces.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Villagers line the route that Molakheil and his U.S. advisers take to Jaji Maidan. i

Villagers line the route that Molakheil and his U.S. advisers take to meet with local tribal elders in Jaji Maidan, a border district in Khost province where locals who support the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition are surrounded by insurgent-supporting tribes. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Villagers line the route that Molakheil and his U.S. advisers take to Jaji Maidan.

Villagers line the route that Molakheil and his U.S. advisers take to meet with local tribal elders in Jaji Maidan, a border district in Khost province where locals who support the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition are surrounded by insurgent-supporting tribes.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Gen. Molakheil greets local tribal elders in Jaji Maidan. i

Molakheil greets local tribal elders in Jaji Maidan. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Gen. Molakheil greets local tribal elders in Jaji Maidan.

Molakheil greets local tribal elders in Jaji Maidan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Map of Afghanistan i

Some of the most volatile areas of Afghanistan's border with Pakistan lie in Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces, which are under the jurisdiction of Molakheil. Lindsay Mangum/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Lindsay Mangum/NPR
Map of Afghanistan

Some of the most volatile areas of Afghanistan's border with Pakistan lie in Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces, which are under the jurisdiction of Molakheil.

Lindsay Mangum/NPR
Local elders, leaders and militia commanders share their concerns with visitors. i

Desperate to get their message to Kabul, the local elders, leaders and militia commanders tell Molakheil and the Americans their troubles and needs. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Local elders, leaders and militia commanders share their concerns with visitors.

Desperate to get their message to Kabul, the local elders, leaders and militia commanders tell Molakheil and the Americans their troubles and needs.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spent two weeks traveling with the U.S. military to remote and difficult spots along the long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the first of two reports on the struggle to secure this critical frontier.

The 1,500-mile-long border Afghanistan shares with Pakistan is a wild and dangerous place, one ruled more by gunmen and tribes than by the government in Kabul.

The border also plays a key role in the growing insurgency in Afghanistan, providing militants a route to sanctuaries and supplies that Western and Afghan officials want shut down.

But doing so is easier said than done. There are simply not enough troops there — Afghan or Western — to seal the nebulous border that runs through snow-covered mountains and expanses of desert.

Militants In Remote Areas

A recent journey to a remote village in eastern Afghanistan's Khost province illustrates the challenges.

Traveling first by helicopter and then on foot, U.S. soldiers and the Afghan general they have brought along travel to the village of Jaji Maidan, their guns at the ready.

It's not that they don't trust the residents. These villagers support the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition.

The problem is some of their neighbors. Like many Afghans who live along the volatile border with Pakistan, the neighbors have links to militants seeking to drive Western forces out of Afghanistan.

With local help, the militants often turn the road leading from the village to the provincial capital into a minefield, helping isolate Jaji Maidan from the rest of Afghanistan.

So it's little surprise that the arrival of outsiders draws a crowd. Tribal elders in turbans squeeze onto the patio at police headquarters, eager to meet with Maj. Gen. Nabi Jan Molakheil, who has come with the Americans. He heads the Afghan border police in Khost and two neighboring provinces, Paktia and Paktika.

Lt. Col. Raymond Kent, a National Guardsman from Laramie, Wyo., is the Afghan general's senior U.S. adviser.

"He's the voice of Afghanistan to them," Kent says of Molakheil. "He's the government. To these guys, he's Kabul."

Locals Seek Government Help

The central government is one most Afghans living on the border rarely see.

A tribal militia commander named Azizullah tells the general that the Afghan government should do more for them. Azizullah, like many Afghans, only uses one name.

He says that the Taliban is in control just outside their town. He adds that frequent militant attacks in the area deprive residents of badly needed development, like schools and clinics. The violence even spills into Jaji Maidan — for example, a suicide attack at the market about two months ago left Azizullah with permanent injuries to his face and leg.

He asks the general for more money to expand his tribal militia, or arbakai, from 18 to 100. But Molakheil and the Americans have other ideas of how to bring security to this volatile region.

U.S. Places Priority On Afghan Border Police

For them, the answer lies with men such as the ones at an Afghan border police headquarters in Khost province.

In recent months, the U.S. military has turned its full attention to training and equipping this long-neglected Afghan force. The aim is to re-create the success with the border police that the Americans had in the past seven years with the Afghan army, which is increasingly doing its own fighting.

The U.S. military has made it a priority to fly Molakheil around the region, to persuade Afghans to join the border police — or, at least, cooperate with them.

His passionate speeches and Pashtun roots, shared by most of the residents on the border, have led tribal elders and strongmen to offer nearly 700 men for recruitment into the border police in the past four months.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Charles Bradley's battalion, which until recently was fighting insurgents just outside Kabul, was reassigned to speed up development of the border police.

"This is an Afghan problem, and we are trying to provide an Afghan solution by increasing their capability, and I think that's where the efforts need to be focused," Bradley says.

Improving Afghan-Pakistani Ties

U.S. military officials say they are also working hard to improve relations between the Afghan force and their Pakistani counterparts. There have been repeated firefights on the border in recent years — not just with insurgents, but between Pakistani frontier corps officers and Afghan and American forces.

Some of the fights were, in part, the result of lingering questions on where the border actually is. Few here accept the internationally recognized Durand Line drawn by the British 115 years ago.

Afghan officials, as well as a growing number of Western ones, also accuse current and former Pakistani military and intelligence officials of helping the Taliban, which the Pakistani government has repeatedly denied.

U.S. Army Maj. Pat Seiber, spokesman for Task Force Currahee, the U.S.-led coalition in Khost and neighboring provinces, says his group has upped the number of meetings it's been hosting among Afghan, Pakistani and U.S. officers to ease the tensions.

"We have to help each other out," he says.

U.S. Efforts Met With Skepticism

But not everyone is persuaded by the new American approach.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for additional American troops arriving this year to be sent to secure the border. But American plans call for deploying the bulk of those troops in the southern provinces that are the stronghold of the Taliban.

And some Western experts say any military solution to the border problems — be it homegrown or foreign — is unlikely to succeed.

Christine Fair is co-author of a recent U.S. Institute of Peace report calling for a "game-changing" strategy to save Afghanistan.

"I'm very dubious, given the nature of the border ... that you will ever have enough border security forces that will actually be able to manage the security issues of that border," Fair says.

Nor can the Afghan government afford to maintain the kind of force being created once the Americans leave, she says. Instead, she and others say, the problem is a political one that requires a political solution that resolves the concerns of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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