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US troops in Afghanistan fire at Taliban in Pakistan

Colonel cites right to defend outposts from rebel attacks

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Asserting a right to self defense, American forces in eastern Afghanistan have launched artillery rounds into Pakistan to strike Taliban fighters who attack remote US outposts, the commander of US forces in the region said yesterday.

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 US 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 point of contention between Washington and Islamabad since Pakistan put in place a peace agreement in September that was intended to stop cross-border incursions.

Army Colonel John W. Nicholson, commander of the Third Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, said in an interview that rather than halt such incursions, the peace deal has led to a substantial increase in attacks .

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.

The Pakistan Army's top spokesman said yesterday that coalition forces operating in Afghanistan are not allowed to fire into Pakistani territory, but acknowledged that artillery fire from the coalition had landed inside Pakistan in recent days. Pakistan also plans to seek clarification about Nicholson's comments.

Members of Nicholson's brigade, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., 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, General 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, the Taliban have crossed the border at night, using wire cutters to breach the perimeter of small US outposts, "trying to get hand grenades into our bunkers," he said .

"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 US firepower.

"They'll keep coming back," he said.

When Taliban forces on the Pakistan side of the border fire on US 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 from his headquarters at Jalalabad air field. "Even if those fires are coming from across the border [in Pakistan], we have the right to defend ourselves."