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New Terror Wave Deepens Divide Between Pakistan, Afghanistan

Afghan families wait to enter Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan on February 17.
Afghan families wait to enter Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan on February 17.

Pakistan has closed its border with Afghanistan, fired a barrage of artillery into its neighbor’s territory and staged a major domestic crackdown on militant groups, reportedly killing more than 100 suspects, in response to the deadliest terror attacks in recent months.

It was the latest in a series of deadly attacks in both nations that have been claimed by Islamic State (IS) militants. That could provide grounds for a united fight against terrorism but instead seems to be pushing the two countries apart in a flurry of accusations that each side is harboring groups responsible for cross-border attacks.

In one of the most horrific attacks a suicide bombing hit one of Pakistan’s most revered Sufi shrines. The February 16 attack killing at least 83 worshippers and injured scores more.

Scenes of the carnage in Sindh province sent shock waves up through the Pakistani government. It blamed the Jama-ul-Ahrar group, operating out of Afghanistan, for being “behind these barbaric acts of terrorism,” according to a statement from the office of Sartaj Aziz, adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign affairs. Pakistan said it lodged a strong protest with Afghanistan.

The two countries have swapped accusations that not enough has been done to root out extremists launching cross-border attacks from both sides.

According to the statement from his office, Aziz spoke by phone with Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar, saying the fight against terrorism requires close cooperation, particularly in policing the border.

Aziz expressed “serious concern” that Afghanistan had not paid heed to Pakistan’s repeated calls for action against Jama-ul-Ahrar.

‘Effective Strategies’ Needed

Atmar’s office said he condemned such “abhorrent” attacks on civilians, and pointed out that IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in Afghanistan.

“Both countries must maintain strong and transparent commitments to preventing such groups from operating on their soil,” Atmar’s office said in a statement. “We must find and execute effective strategies to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries wherever they exist.”

But Pakistan was clearly in no mood to talk cooperation on this day and only wanted immediate results.

In an unusual move, Afghan embassy officials were summoned to the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi - not to the Foreign Office in Islamabad - and given a list of 76 “most wanted” terrorists that Pakistan wants apprehended immediately and handed over.

Security forces have been given special orders to maintain strict vigilance all along the border, according to a statement by the Pakistani military’s media wing.

“The border has been closed since last night due to security reasons. No cross-border or unauthorized entry will be allowed into Pakistan from Afghanistan,” the statement said.

Shah Hussain Murtazawi, spokesman for Afghanistan’s president, lamented the decision, telling VOA: “Closing borders does not solve the problems.”

Major border crossings at Spin Boldak in the south and Torkham in the north were closed, with troops standing guard. U.S.-led NATO forces heavily depend on both for their logistics supply in Afghanistan. Long lines of trucks and cars were backed up on both sides, hoping the closure would be short.

False Sense Of Security Blamed

Tasneem Noorani, a former Pakistani interior secretary and analyst, said the government was under pressure to take action.

“I think in the present situation, government’s reaction is in the right direction,” he said. “At least [people] would see that authorities are doing something.”

Noorani said the government may have been lulled into a false sense of security by a relative calm over the last few months following an aggressive stance toward terrorists over the previous two years.

“The government and military might have thought that [terrorists] gave up [their activities],” Noorani said. “In fact, that was not the case."

The U.S. State Department strongly condemned the attack and offered Pakistan support in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

“Today’s attack is only the latest in a series of violent acts this past week in Lahore, Balochistan, Peshawar and Mohmand Agency,” it said in a statement. “We stand with the people of Pakistan in their fight against terrorism and remain committed to the security of the South Asia region.”

The military statement said the army chief had ordered security operations against terrorists across the country that already had killed more than 100 suspected militants. In addition, retaliatory strikes were carried out in Afghan villages across the border.

“The intelligence agencies are making progress to unearth networks behind the recent terrorism incidents,” the statement said.

However, politicians, defense analysts and columnists expressed reservations over the military actions, calling it an “emotional” response.

Syed Iftikhar ul Hassan, a member of the National Assembly from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N), suggested that the terror attacks have a bigger purpose as part of a “conspiracy against the government” to halt army operations against militants and to derail a planned economic corridor with China.

“There was a huge network that is being fixed and soon things will be all right,” he said.

-- Written by Paul Alexander for the Voice of America