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Afghanistan, Pakistan, US Military Forces Cooperate in Border Region

Mutual distrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan has hampered efforts to combat terrorism along their common border. That has led to calls for joint patrols, along with international troops. While that has yet to happen, Afghan and Pakistani soldiers, along with U.S. forces, are working and living alongside each other in a new military facility in the Khyber Pass on the Afghan side of the border. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman was given a rare look inside the first Joint Border Coordination Center and files this report.

It is one of the world's most strategically important and porous borders. Smugglers and terrorists can cross it at more than 250 points - some in rugged mountainous terrain, virtually impossible for Afghanistan or Pakistan to adequately monitor.

This lawless area, for years, has been home to al-Qaida, Taliban and other insurgents intent on undermining the governments on both sides of the border, as well as attacking the 70,000 international troops in Afghanistan.

In order to coordinate efforts to patrol the region and fight terrorism, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States have established the first of six planned border coordination centers.

The first center, along the fabled Khyber Pass on the Afghan side of the border, opened in late March. Here, Afghan, Pakistani and American forces work, live and eat together. They communicate in English, Dari and Pashto with the help of interpreters.

Afghan Army Brigadier General Abdul Rahim Faizi says this allows soldiers from the three countries to gain mutual understanding by working side-by-side.

General Faizi says, those working together in the coordination center can achieve more accurate aerial and artillery targeting of the common enemy.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Milley explains that this first center is helping to overcome problems that resulted from lack of coordination along the border, including friendly-fire incidents.

"It coordinates activities between Pakistan, the Afghan national security forces, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] Regional Command-East forces along the border, in order to prevent them from having incidents of conflict between each other and in order to focus their efforts against the enemy."
For too long, the area has been a virtual no-man's land and disagreements remain on precise national boundaries.

Afghan Brigadier General Faizi says the initial coordination center in the Khyber Pass is meant to reverse the natural advantage the enemy has enjoyed.

General Faizi says the very difficult terrain has allowed terrorists to cross back and forth without detection. But the tripartite center allows coordination with local community sources, giving the armies the ability to respond immediately against those with ill intent.

Each month, one-star generals from the three countries meet at the Khyber Pass to discuss how things are going and refine the process.

There are calls for the Afghans and Pakistanis to also work with the international coalition for joint patrols along the border.

The U.S. Army's General Milley says the border coordination centers could be a first step in that direction.

"That may translate into joint military operations. It's hard to tell what direction that'll take and only time will tell. But that clearly is a possibility that the foundation of cooperation is being built."

Experts say that any of the armies acting alone would not be able to police the 2,500 kilometer long border.

General Milley says the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, and the Afghan and Pakistani militaries must fight the border battle together.

"This is a regional problem. This is a regional insurgency. It straddles both sides of an international border," he said. "And in order to have ultimate success at the end of the day, whenever the end of the day is, it's going to require a very cooperative effort between both Afghanistan and Pakistan and ISAF on both sides of this border simultaneously."

The vested interest for the U.S.-led coalition and the NATO forces is not only the immediate neighborhood. Intelligence analysts say that by neutralizing insurgents along the border, they can prevent al-Qaida attacks in other parts of the world because the remote terrain remains a planning center and training ground for global terrorist missions.