Taliban forge alliance to face US push

IN A major show of force, Taliban leaders based in Pakistan have closed ranks with their Afghan comrades to mount an offensive in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to send in 21,000 more troops.

Taliban fighters based in the border region say preparations for the anticipated influx of US 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 re-fortified 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.

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The overture by Omar is an indication that, with the prospect of a US build-up, the Taliban feel the need to strengthen their own forces in Afghanistan and to redirect their Pakistani allies towards blunting the new American push.

The Pakistani Taliban movement is 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.

American officials said last 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 US 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 US 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. "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 who have often clashed among themselves – Baitullah Mehsud, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulavi Nazir – and are based in North and South Waziristan, the hub of insurgent activity in Pakistan's tribal border regions.

Omar dispatched a six-member team to Waziristan in late December and early January, according to several Taliban fighters in Dera Ismail Khan, a town in North-West Frontier Province that is not far from South Waziristan. 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 US forces in Afghanistan, the fighters said.

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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 Omar. The Afghan Taliban routinely disavow any presence in Pakistan or connection to the Pakistani Taliban, in order to emphasise 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," Mujahid said. "We have sympathy for them as Muslims, but beside that, there is nothing else between us."

Several Pakistani officials confirmed the meetings. But they said that the overture might have been inspired by Sirajuddin Haqqani, an Afghan Taliban leader who swears allegiance to Omar but is largely independent in his operations.

Haqqani and his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the most powerful figures in Waziristan, are closely linked to al-Qaeda and to Pakistani intelligence, said American officials. 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. His real name is reported to be Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul.

A front-line commander during the Taliban regime, Zakir was captured in 2001 in northern Afghanistan and was detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until his release in 2007, according to Afghan Taliban members contacted by telephone.

The Pakistani fighters described Zakir as an impressive speaker and a trainer, and one said he was particularly energetic in working to unite the different Taliban groups.

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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 the hope of improving their own security in Waziristan, where more than 30 drone strikes in recent months have been directed at both Mehsud and Nazir. Two senior Haqqani commanders have been killed.

The Pakistani Taliban leaders also rely on 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 Omar, as well as to Osama bin Laden.

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.

Obama's plans to counter violence welcomed as 'better than expected'

Afghanistan's president said yesterday that the new US strategy for the worsening conflict in his country is "better than we were expecting" and provides the right solutions for the region's problems.

President Hamid Karzai praised US plans to strengthen the Afghan army and provide more aid, as well as President Barack Obama's focus on countering militants in Pakistan. "This is better than we were expecting. We back it," Karzai said. "It is exactly what the Afghan people were hoping for and we were seeking."

The US strategy of 21,000 extra troops includes 4,000 to help train Afghanistan's army and police. The plan also calls for hundreds of extra civilians for reconstruction and billions of dollars in extra aid to Pakistan to improve daily life and curtail the influence of militants.

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Pakistan has pledged to crack down on Islamic militants, but western and Afghan officials suspect officers in the country's spy agency support the Taliban, which Pakistan helped bring to power in the 1990s.

The head of the British Army said last week that some members of 12 Mechanised Brigade, who were trained for Iraq but later stood down, have been "earmarked for Afghanistan". But General Sir Richard Dannatt said that there were no plans to send the entire 4,000-strong brigade – which would take the British force to more than 12,000. That would create "a risk of replicating the pressures on the army that we are trying to avoid," he said.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "There is a judgment between 8,000 to 12,000 as to what is a reasonable number to allow to be in Afghanistan on a sustainable basis."

The UK is awaiting a formal request for more troops from Obama, and Downing Street said there would be no decisions until Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Obama held talks next week at Number 10.