NATO races to secure violent, porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border

NATO has been beefing up security on the poorly marked frontier with new equipment and extended training.

Reuters August 29, 2011

SPIN BOLDAK: Alim Mohammad surveys the stretch of land he has guarded for the last four years, squinting under the sunlight from a cliff overlooking what the United States calls the most dangerous place in the world.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is porous, long and teems with illegal activity, from the Taliban insurgents who hop back and forth to the enormous amounts of weapons, explosives and narcotics that are smuggled across it.

"We have a really hard time," said Mohammad, 23, flashing a set of rotten teeth and hoisting his assault rifle over his shoulder.

Dressed in camouflage, he is one of 20,000 guards protecting the 2,640 km border along Afghanistan's east.

NATO has been beefing up security on the poorly marked frontier with new equipment and extended training, but border guards and Afghan officials worry it may not be enough in the face of escalating violence in a decade-long war.

Mohammad said he was recently ambushed three nights in a row by insurgents as they crossed the border at Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban.

"Other times, we see whole truckloads of suicide vests and explosives trying to pass through," he told Reuters, pointing through a sandy haze across the sun-torched landscape at the Pakistani border 3 km away.

Spin Boldak is the second busiest crossing after Torkham, which is further up north in the Khyber Pass in Nangarhar province, near Kabul.

Appearing innocuous and sleepy, US officials warn the terracotta villages along the border harbour insurgents that launch cross-border raids, something the guards know.

"Al Qaeda and the Taliban flow over it all the time, but it's our job to protect it," said Zabihullah, 32, who only gave his first name. He is among the 130 recruits who on Saturday became the first to graduate an extended eight-week NATO border patrol training course.

Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly trade accusations over that. Pakistan's military on Saturday blamed the "scanty presence" of NATO and Afghan forces for regular assaults like one that killed at least 36 people.

"There has been an increase in the number of foreign terrorists and we are putting a lot of pressure on them," Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told Reuters last week in a jibe clearly aimed at Pakistan.

No computers, no radios

Zabihullah's course was the first in Afghanistan to benefit from being extended by two weeks, a decision NATO made in May amid criticism from trainers that the six-week basic course for army and police was too short and not professional enough.

But a lack of equipment and facilities plague the border patrol force, said Afghan General Mujtaba Patang, in charge of all police training.

"We simply cannot sustain a good level of security without proper equipment. Many of our border police live in remote areas, with no computers or radios. They can't communicate with each other," Patang told Reuters.

His concerns were echoed by guards, who said corruption among the force's upper echelon worsened already bad conditions.

"Some of the guys wear sandals at the border because their boots have been taken by officers who sell them," said Mohammad.

Customs officials have said the Afghan government collects around a fifth of the revenue it should in Kandahar province a year due to corruption.

Major General Walter Golden, deputy commander for police in the NATO training mission, acknowledged "pockets of corruption" exist, but said 85 percent of the force will be equipped by March.

Between now and then, $2.7 billion worth of weapons, vehicles, aircraft and communications gear will be given to the Afghan security forces, Golden said, a significant increase over previous years.

A large, $23 million border crossing compound is also under way, expected to open in July next year in Spin Boldak.

A Romanian team taught Zabihullah and his fellow recruits combat techniques, vehicle search procedures, marksmanship and a basic literacy class in Spin Boldak in an adobe and stone fortress built by the British in the nineteenth century.

On a baking hot day towards the end of the holy month of Ramazan, thirsty and fasting graduates showed off their skills for their NATO and Afghan trainers, acting out a scenario when they catch an insurgent planting a roadside bomb.

Around three-quarters of the border police have undergone basic training. Well over half of the 170,000-strong Afghan army and 135,000 police are also trained, though the number of the forces will swell in coming years.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is racing to train Afghanistan's army, police and border guards by the end of 2014, the deadline when all security responsibilities will have been handed over to the Afghans.

"As long as ISAF makes sure weapons are not scarce, we should be all right," new border police graduate Abdul Malik, 30, told Reuters.