Afghan warlords unite to fight Nato

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AS Nato struggles to find more troops to send to Afghanistan, the alliance appears to have achieved the impossible, but dangerous feat of uniting previously disparate warlords, tribes and militia.

US and British troops have stopped identifying them by their allegiance, and refer to them all as ACM - short for Anti-Coalition Militias - a collective word for the mixture of Taliban supporters, Pakistani jihadists, armed tribesmen, loyalists to various warlords and a sprinkling of foreign fighters who represent al-Qaeda.

One American soldier told a reporter at a US base: "I'm just a jarhead, sir, but if you ask me, sir, they're all bad guys. We find 'em, we kill 'em."

Most disturbing to the allied commanders is that at least two of the enemy warlords, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, received many millions of dollars in cash, plus sophisticated weapons from the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI), when they were fighting against the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s. Those weapons have now been turned against their former providers.

Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry, commander of Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan, with 20,000 US soldiers under his control, said western intelligence had identified a "Taliban triumvirate" that has been operating since spring of this year.

The most colourful member is Hekmatyar - self-styled Lion of the Mountains, who was considered to be so effective as an anti-Soviet commander that the CIA and ISI allocated the highest percentage of all covert aid to him.

At that time, the Americans did not care that Hizb-i Islami, the militant group founded by Hekmatyar, espoused an extremist religious and anti-Western ideology, and attracted thousands of religious radicals to Afghanistan, among them Osama bin Laden himself.

Hekmatyar even became prime minister twice in the 1990s. After September 11 2001, he sided with Osama bin Laden, and was named as a global terrorist by an executive order of the US government. He has issued a tape calling for a jihad against the US and offering rewards for those who kill US troops.

Then there is Haqqani, who also fought against the Soviets with American support before moving to the Taliban. According to Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, who formerly ran the CIA's Bin Laden unit and met with Haqqani in the early 1990s, he is a "border brigand out of Kipling". Haqqani commands the eastern sector of the insurgency, along the border with Pakistan.

But Haqqani, now an elderly Islamic scholar, has excellent high-level contacts in the Arab world, especially among oil-rich fundamentalists in the Gulf. One of his wives is a Kuwaiti aristocrat, and members of the Saudi Arabian royal family are thought to have contributed to the construction of several large religious schools under his control.

"Haqqani's organisation has remained intact from the Soviet era, and is much more closely aligned with the Arabs than the Taliban are," according to a defence intelligence official. These Arab sponsors provide fighters to lead operations by Haqqani's Pashtun fighters, he says. The third member of the triumvirate, the lesser-known Mullah Mohammed Dadullah, has recently become the Taliban's top military commander.

Dadullah, who lost a leg fighting for the organisation during its rise to power in the mid-1990s, recently claimed the Taliban had registered 500 Afghans ready to be used as suicide bombers against "the intruders who have occupied our Islamic country".

Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, said: "As far as we can tell, it's elements of the old Taliban leadership who are at the forefront of what is happening now. But they are overseeing a very diffuse group. Many of them would describe themselves as adherents to the Taliban outlook, but it includes people who are essentially allied to local warlords.

"It certainly includes small landowners, who are concerned about losing their capacity to grow opium poppies because of the eradication campaigns. The Taliban's offers to protect farmers from eradication campaigns will have boosted their popularity in major poppy-growing provinces like Helmand."

The current Taliban coalition has its roots in a "council of war" held earlier this year in a village on the Pakistani border. It was agreed a closer alliance would be built to kill British and other troops due to arrive in Helmand province.

Al-Qaeda was represented by Abu Khalid Al-Misir, on behalf of Musab Al-Zarqawi, the now dead al-Qaeda leader in Iraq.

Misir told the gathering: "We have been washing the infidels with their blood; you should do the same. If Afghans defeated the Russians why not the Americans?"

Meanwhile, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, holed up in Kabul, is increasingly marginalised, as the insecurity has shaken faith in the elected government.

Hekmatyar has even taken to taunting Karzai. Earlier this month he called the president and told him he should be able to tell from the telephone number where Hekmatyar was speaking from. He challenged Karzai to arrest him.

However, Hekmatyar, Haqqani and Dadullah - "the bad, the ugly and the uglier", as one US intelligence officer described them - are likely to be at large for some time.