Death Toll From Pakistani Airstrike Rises to 45, Afghan Officials Say

Safiullah Padshah, Christina Goldbaum and 

The New York Times

The airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan early Saturday morning escalated already simmering tensions between the two countries.

A protest against Pakistani airstrikes in Khost, Afghanistan, on Saturday.
Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

KABUL, Afghanistan — The death toll from airstrikes by the Pakistani military in eastern Afghanistan rose to at least 45 people, local officials said on Sunday, exacerbating simmering tensions along the border between the countries.

Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last year, the country’s eastern border with Pakistan has been a source of increasing tension, with Pakistani officials claiming that newly emboldened militants harbored on Afghan soil are carrying out more frequent attacks in Pakistan. Taliban officials have denied sheltering militants.

The pre-dawn airstrikes, carried out in Kunar and Khost provinces early Saturday morning, killed civilians — including children — and injured 22 more, Shabir Ahmad Osmani, the director of information and culture in Khost Province, said on Sunday.

While sporadic cross-border shelling has killed civilians in Afghanistan for years, the death toll from the strikes on Saturday marks a significant escalation in violence and the use of military force by Pakistani authorities.

The strikes drew immediate condemnation from Taliban officials, who said that Pakistani military aircraft carried out the airstrikes.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan strongly condemns Pakistan’s attacks on refugees in Khost and Kunar. IEA calls on the Pakistani side not to test the patience of Afghans on such issues and not repeat the same mistake again otherwise it will have bad consequences,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban government, said in a statement on Twitter.

“Problems between the two countries must be resolved through political means,” he added.

The airstrikes added to Taliban officials’ existing frustration with Pakistani authorities over a fence Pakistan is building along the country’s 1,600 mile border, known as the Durand line.

Khost in 2018.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

On Saturday, Taliban authorities summoned Pakistan’s ambassador in Kabul to express their disapproval of the attacks and give him a diplomatic démarche to deliver to Islamabad, according to a statement from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Officials in Pakistan have not confirmed the strikes. Responding to news of the strikes on Sunday, Pakistani officials said that cross-border attacks from Afghanistan on its security forces had risen dramatically and urged the Taliban to secure the border area from militants.

“Pakistan has repeatedly requested Afghan Government in last few months to secure Pak-Afghan border region. Terrorists are using Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan,” Pakistan’s foreign office said in a statement on Sunday.

For decades the porous border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been a stronghold for the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a banned militant group in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban are separate entities, though they draw strength from some of the same ideological and religious moorings.

Since 2007, the Pakistani Taliban has been responsible for some of Pakistan’s worst terrorist attacks. The group carried out an attack on a school in Peshawar that killed 145 people in 2014, and in 2009 it attacked the headquarters of the Pakistani military. The Pakistani Taliban also tried to kill Malala Yousafzai, the student boldly defying Taliban subjugation of women who would recover from severe gunshot injuries and go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

While the Pakistani military carried out successive offensives against the group and won substantial gains in recent years, some Pakistani Taliban commanders found shelter in neighboring Afghanistan, officials say. For years that was a source of constant tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan’s previous Western-backed governments, which accused Pakistan of nurturing the Afghan Taliban insurgency and sheltering its leaders.

After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August of last year, the Pakistani Taliban continued to launch regular attacks against Pakistani forces, Pakistani officials say. In November of last year, Pakistani authorities worked with the Afghan Taliban to broker a monthlong ceasefire with the militant group, Pakistani officials said.

A boy wounded in Pakistani airstrikes being treated at a hospital in Khost on Saturday.
Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At the time, many pegged the ceasefire as the most significant step toward peace in Pakistan since 2014, when negotiations with the insurgents fell apart and the military launched an operation to bring swaths of northwest Pakistan back into their control.

But that hope proved futile. The November ceasefire was not renewed and after it expired, the Pakistani Taliban stepped up attacks on Pakistan’s soil in its effort to pressure authorities into allowing militants to return to their hometowns with impunity.

“Over the last several months, the T.T.P. has inflicted heavy losses on Pakistani security forces,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, referring to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan as the T.T.P. “Pakistan is realizing that the T.T.P. is a growing threat and the Taliban is unwilling to restrain anti-Pakistan jihadi groups despite the growing violence.”

On Thursday, seven Pakistan army soldiers were killed in North Waziristan, in the northwest area of the country, by militants operating from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s foreign office said in its statement.

The airstrikes on Saturday appear to have been carried out as retaliation to that attack. Most of the people killed in the airstrikes had been displaced from North Waziristan, according to locals.

On Saturday night and Sunday, hundreds of people in the Tank and Mirali districts, in northwest Pakistan, took to the streets in rallies protesting the airstrikes. They chanted, “Stop killing of innocent Waziristanis” as they marched, videos of the protest show.

Activists have also called for an inquiry commission to be formed by both the Pakistani and Afghan governments to investigate the incident and hold those responsible for the strike that killed civilians.

The airstrikes also appeared to further embolden the Pakistani Taliban.

“We want to tell the Pakistani army that every war has a principle and Pakistan has violated every principle of war up to date,” a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Muhammad Khurasani, said on Saturday. “We challenge the Pakistan army to fight us in the battlefield instead of bombing oppressed people and refugee camps.”

Safiullah Padshah reported from Kabul, Christina Goldbaum from Dubai and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud from Islamabad, Pakistan.

Christina Goldbaum is a correspondent in the Kabul, Afghanistan, bureau.

Death Toll From Pakistani Airstrike Rises to 45, Afghan Officials Say