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Taliban Finds New Strength in Pakistan

August 31, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

DIR, Pakistan — A revitalized Taliban army is drawing recruits from militant groups in Pakistan, including Al Qaeda loyalists, as it fights an escalating guerrilla war against U.S. forces and their allies across the border in Afghanistan.

These fighters are answering the call from Muslim clerics to wage jihad, or holy war, against U.S.-led forces, according to Taliban members and supporters as well as Pakistani militants interviewed on both sides of the border. The Taliban is also exploiting the alienation felt by ethnic Pushtuns in Afghanistan because of continued insecurity, a scarcity of development projects and ongoing U.S. military operations.

But even as fighting increases, a relatively moderate element of the Taliban is said to be interested in participating in national elections next June, and discussing a replacement for Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's fugitive leader. He is believed to still be in Afghanistan despite a $10-million reward for his capture.

Afghan authorities have blamed the Taliban for a string of attacks in eastern and southern Afghanistan that have killed more than 60 Afghan civilians, pro-government Muslim clerics, police and soldiers since mid-July. U.S. and Afghan forces say they have killed at least several dozen suspected Taliban fighters in the same period.

Despite the presence of thousands of U.S. and other international troops, the Taliban fighters and their allies hope to eventually retake the southern city of Kandahar, once Omar's seat of power, said a local Pakistani commander of Harkat-ul-Moujahedeen, a longtime ally of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The commander, who was interviewed in this mountain town near the Afghan border, spoke on condition that he not be identified. As a member of a group banned by the Pakistani government, he fears arrest.

He runs a madrasa, or Koranic school, and says he has crossed into Afghanistan seven times since late 2001, to aid the Taliban's war against U.S.-led forces. In one case, he said with a sly smile, Pakistani soldiers guarding the border saw him and did nothing.

In any case, he said, borders are irrelevant for him and like-minded Muslims.

"We don't believe in any boundaries or separate countries for Muslims -- there is only one Islam," he said. "These people are going [to Afghanistan] because there is a fatwa from religious scholars that says there is a jihad against Americans there." A fatwa is a religious edict.

"The fact is that now the situation in the Pushtun belt is very critical compared with other parts of Afghanistan," he added. "Now all Pushtuns are reuniting against the Americans."

Afghan government officials speak of hundreds of Taliban members and their allies filtering back and forth across the border from Pakistan. The Harkat commander, who wore brown-tinted rectangular sunglasses and a small, tightly wrapped black turban, declined to provide a figure.

However, he added: "People sitting in government offices can't imagine how many Pakistanis are still operating inside Afghanistan, supporting the Taliban."

Local residents say other Pakistan-based militant groups crossing into Afghanistan include the Al Badr militia and Hizbul Moujahedeen. The latter is an old ally of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received large shipments of weapons from the United States during the war against Soviet forces in the 1980s. But after the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Washington accused him of plotting against President Hamid Karzai and targeted him with a missile strike in May 2002. He survived.

Harkat, Hizbul Moujahedeen and Al Badr are among the main militant groups fighting in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. But under U.S. pressure Pakistan has curbed those infiltrations, leaving militants ripe for recruitment to the pro-Taliban jihad in Afghanistan.

Harkat was one of the founders of Osama bin Laden's "International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," announced at a news conference near the Afghan frontier town of Khowst in 1998.

Khowst remains a power base for the Taliban. U.S. fighter jets and helicopters patrol day and night here in support of ground troops searching for weapons and militant fighters. Often the enemy is close -- but invisible.

Taliban member Nadir Khan recently sat in the back seat of a reporter's car not far from a U.S. base and described how he and other Taliban members move back and forth across the Pakistani border, about an hour's drive away. They carry out attacks and return to their bases in Pakistan, he said. Khan was contacted through an intermediary and agreed to talk on condition that the precise location of the interview not be revealed.

He said he attended a meeting of Taliban commanders in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan's largest city, on July 12.

"It was like a Cabinet meeting," he said.

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