BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan – Asserting a right to self-defense, American forces in eastern Afghanistan launched artillery rounds into Pakistan to strike Taliban fighters who attack remote U.S. outposts, the commander of U.S. forces in the region said Sunday.
The skirmishes are politically sensitive because Pakistan's government, regarded by the Bush administration as an important ally against Islamic extremists, has denied that it allows U.S. forces to strike inside its territory.
The use of the largely ungoverned Waziristan area of Pakistan as a haven for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters has become a greater irritant between Washington and Islamabad since Pakistan put in place a peace agreement there in September that was intended to stop cross-border incursions.
U.S. Army Col. John W. Nicholson, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, said in an Associated Press interview that rather than halt such incursions, the peace deal has led to a substantial increase.
Pakistani border forces, which had been active in stopping Taliban incursions into Afghanistan as recently as last spring, stopped offensive actions against them once the peace deal took effect, he said.
"That did relax some of the pressure on the enemy," Nicholson said.
Members of Nicholson's brigade recently were told that instead of going home this month after a yearlong tour, they will stay for an extra four months, until June.
Nicholson told the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody, that this news hit soldiers and their families hard, but that they are now adjusting well. Cody is traveling in Afghanistan.
The brigade of about 3,500 soldiers is being kept in Afghanistan because senior commanders decided they needed more forces to deal with an anticipated Taliban offensive this spring. The offensive is expected to focus not only on eastern Afghanistan but also the south, where the traditional Taliban stronghold of Kandahar is seen as a prized target. NATO forces operate in that area.
Nicholson described the fighting along the border, particularly in Afghanistan's Paktika and Khost provinces, as intense. In some cases, he said, the Taliban have crossed the border at night, using wire cutters to breach the perimeter of small U.S. outposts, "trying to get hand grenades into our bunkers."
"I mean we're talking World War I type of stuff," Nicholson said. "These are some very sharp, intense fights" initiated by an enemy he described as resilient and undeterred by superior U.S. firepower.
"They'll keep coming back," he said.
When Taliban forces on the Pakistan side of the border fire on U.S. outposts on the Afghan side, the Americans are equipped to quickly pinpoint the launch location using radar and then strike back with artillery, he said.
"We do not allow the enemy to fire with impunity on our soldiers, and we have the inherent right of self defense," he said, speaking by video teleconference from his headquarters at Jalalabad air field. "Even if those fires are coming from across the border (in Pakistan), we have the right to defense ourselves, and we exercise that right." He added later, "We do fire missions across the border."
Nicholson responded to questions from an AP reporter after the commander spoke by video teleconference with Cody.
Cody had planned to fly to Jalalabad to meet with Nicholson and other commanders but poor weather forced him to remain at Bagram, the main American air base in Afghanistan.
Nicholson told Cody that U.S. forces have made important strides this winter in persuading local Afghans to side with the U.S.-backed government and to be less accommodating to the Taliban. The Taliban have been resurgent in some parts of the country after being driven from power by U.S. forces in 2001.
Nicholson's area of responsibility includes the border provinces from Nuristan to Paktika. He said his forces are not required to get approval from Pakistan before responding to an attack. But he emphasized that efforts are made to warn Pakistani government forces along the border to clear the intended target area before U.S. artillery is launched.
"We make every effort to communicate with the Pakistan military," he said. Nicholson said the computers used to target U.S. artillery are programmed with the map coordinates of Pakistani border posts.
"If a fire mission is being called that would impact on a Pakistan border post, we typically will not shoot — we will not shoot that mission," he said.
The United States has given radios to Pakistan border posts so they can communicate with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he said. If U.S. troops are unable to contact them directly before launching an artillery assault, an illumination round is fired first as a means of warning the Pakistanis that high explosives will follow.