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PESHAWAR, Jun 19 2008 (IPS) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s threat to send troops across the border to crush pro-Taliban forces, which sparked angry protests in Pakistan’s border areas this week, has led to calls for restraint from moderate politicians in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
"Pakhtun blood is being shed on both sides of the border," observed Afrasiab Khattak, president of the NWFP’s ruling Awami National Party (ANP).
Describing the situation as "extremely alarming", Khattak blamed "foreign powers" for turning the region into a battlefield. Violence has escalated in Pakistan’s tribal areas along its border with Afghanistan since the U.S. unleashed its so-called war on terror in the wake of the World Trade Centre bombings in September 2001.
Remnants of Afghanistan’s Taliban, which were ousted from Kabul by U.S.- led foreign troops, are believed to have taken shelter in remote tribal villages across the porous border with Pakistan.
On Monday, restive Bajaur and Mohamand agencies were brought to a halt by anti-Karzai protests. Shops were shut down and hundreds of people blocked the roads. Nisar Ahmed Mohmand, chief of the Mohmand Resistance Movement who led the protests warned that in case of a war, Pakhtuns (or Pashtuns) in both countries would die.
Khattak, who is a former chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), has appealed for peace and said bloodshed was no option. Other means of curbing militancy and violence have to be found, he said in an interview with IPS.
Karzai had attacked Pakistan for failing to take military action against the Taliban who last week audaciously blew up the main gate of a jail in Afghanistan’s second largest city, Kandahar. More than 900 prisoners – including hundreds of militants – are thought to have escaped.
"Karzai’s statement has the support of the United States, which has often said the cross-border raids from Pakistan were a growing problem. Secondly, he is desperate to please the U.S., and secure the presidency of his war-battered country for a second term," observed Ashraf Ali, a Peshawar University researcher who is an authority on the Taliban.
Public reaction in Pakistan has generally been one of annoyance. The Afghan president who has often accused Islamabad of not doing enough to flush out militants from its border areas, has never threatened military action before.
"We have been hosting millions of Afghans on our soil. They have been using our resources for three decades now. Karzai himself had lived in Pakistan for over 25 years," said Israrullah, a trader in the Peshawar Cantonment area.
The ruling nationalist ANP has offered to help reduce tensions between the two countries.
Kamran Arif, member of the executive committee of the HRCP, said a negotiated settlement could prevent further loss of blood. "There are international laws that should be applied to resolve problems," he added.
"I am amazed at Islamabad’s reluctance to arrest Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud, which it accused of assassinating Benazir Bhutto," Karzai told a group of visiting Pakistani journalists in Kabul on Jun. 16. "More ironic, were the peace deals between the Baitullah-led Pakistani Taliban and the government," he added.
Reaction from Mahsud’s Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was swift. Spokesman Maulvi Umar condemned Karzai’s threat and warned that if foreign forces entered the tribal area, the Taliban would increase the attacks against NATO and Afghan National Army.
"President Karzai had created more difficulties for himself by threatening to send allied troops after militants in the tribal areas. We don’t care for the threats," Umar told IPS over the phone from an undisclosed location.
He said the Afghan president should first figure out how much of Afghanistan he controls before he issues threats of this kind. According to him, the Karzai government was running scared of the growing clout of the Taliban. The U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan were facing a shameful defeat, Umar warned.
"Thousands of followers of the Taliban movement would defend the country’s frontiers if the Afghan National Army indulged in any misadventure in [Pakistan’s] tribal region," he warned.
Both Kabul and Islamabad have amassed troops on either side of the 2,500 km border but neither has been able to check militancy.
"The situation is very strange. Previously, the attacks were carried out clandestinely, but now Taliban leaders have come out in the open. Baitullah Mahsud has chapters in every troubled area of Pakistan," researcher Ali commented.
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