March 26, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After agreeing to bury their differences and unite forces, Taliban leaders based in Pakistan have closed ranks with their Afghan comrades to ready a new offensive in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to send 17,000 more troops there this year.
In interviews, several Taliban fighters based in the border region said preparations for the anticipated influx of American troops were already being made. A number of new, younger commanders have been preparing to step up a campaign of roadside bombings and suicide attacks to greet the Americans, the fighters said.
The refortified alliance was forged after the reclusive Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, sent emissaries to persuade Pakistani Taliban leaders to join forces and turn their attention to Afghanistan, Pakistani officials and Taliban members said.
The overture by Mullah Omar is an indication that with the prospect of an American buildup, the Taliban feel the need strengthen their own forces in Afghanistan and to redirect their Pakistani allies toward blunting the new American push.
The Pakistani Taliban, an offspring of the Afghan Taliban, are led by veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan who come from the border regions. They have always supported the fight against foreign forces in Afghanistan by supplying fighters, training and logistical aid.
But in recent years the Pakistani Taliban have concentrated on battling the Pakistani government, extending a domain that has not only threatened Pakistan but has also provided an essential rear base for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
At the same time, American officials told The New York Times this week that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency continued to offer money, supplies and guidance to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan as a proxy to help shape a friendly government there once American forces leave.
The new Taliban alliance has raised concern in Afghanistan, where NATO generals warn that the conflict will worsen this year. It has also generated anxiety in Pakistan, where officials fear that a united Taliban will be more dangerous, even if focused on Afghanistan, and draw more attacks inside Pakistan from United States drone aircraft.
“This may bring some respite for us from militants’ attacks, but what it may entail in terms of national security could be far more serious,” said one senior Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to talk to news organizations. “This would mean more attacks inside our tribal areas, something we have been arguing against with the Americans.”
The Pakistani Taliban is dominated by three powerful commanders — Baitullah Mehsud, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulavi Nazir — based in North and South Waziristan, the hub of insurgent activity in Pakistan’s tribal border regions, who have often clashed among themselves.
Mullah Omar dispatched a six-member team to Waziristan in late December and early January, several Taliban fighters said in interviews in Dera Ismail Khan, a town in the North-West Frontier Province that is not far from South Waziristan. They did not want to their names used because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
The Afghan Taliban delegation urged the Pakistani Taliban leaders to settle their internal differences, scale down their activities in Pakistan and help counter the planned increase of American forces in Afghanistan, the fighters said.
The three Pakistani Taliban leaders agreed. In February, they formed a united council, or shura, called the Council of United Mujahedeen. In a printed statement the leaders vowed to put aside their disputes and focus on fighting American-led forces in Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, denied that the meetings ever took place or that any emissaries were sent by Mullah Omar. The Afghan Taliban routinely disavow any presence in Pakistan or connection to the Pakistani Taliban to emphasize that their movement is indigenous to Afghanistan. “We don’t like to be involved with them, as we have rejected all affiliation with Pakistani Taliban fighters,” Mr. Mujahid said. “We have sympathy for them as Muslims, but beside that, there is nothing else between us.”
Several Pakistani officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to talk to news organizations, confirmed the meetings. But they said that the overture might have been inspired by Sirajuddin Haqqani, an Afghan Taliban leader who swears allegiance to Mullah Omar but is largely independent in his operations.
Mr. Haqqani, and his father Jalaluddin Haqqani, the most powerful figures in Waziristan, are closely linked to Al Qaeda and to Pakistani intelligence, American officials say. From their base in North Waziristan, they have directed groups of fighters into eastern Afghanistan and increasingly in complex attacks on the Afghan capital, Kabul.
The Taliban fighters said the Afghan Taliban delegation was led by Mullah Abdullah Zakir, a commander from Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, whose real name is reported to be Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul.
A front-line commander during the Taliban regime, Mullah Zakir was captured in 2001 in northern Afghanistan and was detained at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, until his release in 2007, Afghan Taliban members contacted by telephone said.
The Pakistani fighters described Mullah Zakir as an impressive speaker and a trainer, and one said he was particularly energetic in working to unite the different Taliban groups. Beyond bolstering Taliban forces in Afghanistan, both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders had other reasons to unite, Pakistani officials said.
One motivation may have been to shift the focus of hostilities to Afghanistan in hopes of improving their own security in Waziristan, where more than 30 drone strikes in recent months have been directed at both Mr. Mehsud and Mr. Nazir. Two senior commanders of the Haqqani network have been killed.
The Pakistani Taliban leaders also rely on Mr. Haqqani and their affiliation with the Afghan mujahedeen for legitimacy, as well as the money and influence it brings.
In their written statement, decorated with crossed swords, the three Pakistani Taliban leaders reaffirmed their allegiance to Mullah Omar, as well as the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.
The mujahedeen should unite as the “enemies” have united behind the leadership of President Obama, it said. “The mujahedeen should put aside their own differences for the sake of God, God’s happiness, for the strength of religion, and to bring dishonor on the infidels.” The Taliban fighters interviewed said that the top commanders removed a number of older commanders and appointed younger commanders who were good fighters to prepare for operations in Afghanistan in the coming weeks. In confident spirits, the Taliban fighters predicted that 2009 was going to be a “very bloody” year.
Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan; Pir Zubair Shah from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan; and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.