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On the trail of Taliban's support

More signs suggest a Pakistani role in aiding the Afghan insurgency.

December 24, 2006|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

LIZHA, AFGHANISTAN — The guerrillas followed a dirt road from the Pakistan border through a valley surrounded by low, grassy mountains to their target: an Afghan police post.

Not long after sunset, they opened fire from several sides. For almost four hours, scores of suspected Taliban fighters outgunned the lightly armed Afghan border police, and almost overran their camp.

Then, as quickly as it started, the fight ended. The militants picked up their dead and wounded and fled back into sanctuaries, three miles away, in one of the loosely governed tribal areas of Pakistan.

"A hundred armed Taliban men passed through the Pakistani border with their equipment, and with their rocket-propelled grenade launchers," said Qasim Khail, commander of the Afghan border police's 2nd Brigade, which guards the post here. "And they retreated the same way. There are only two escape routes out of here, and both of them end at a Pakistani border post."

Confidential documents obtained by The Times show that for at least two years, U.S. military intelligence agencies have warned American commanders that Taliban militants were arming and training in Pakistan, then slipping into Afghanistan with the help of Pakistani border control officers.

Pact with Islamabad

On Sept. 5, Pashtun tribal leaders in Pakistan's North Waziristan border region signed a pact with the central government in Islamabad led by President Pervez Musharraf, an avowed ally of the U.S. in its declared war on terrorism.

Under the agreement, the Pakistani army, which had fought fierce battles with pro-Taliban militants, withdrew from the region, leaving a tribal force in charge of border posts. In return, the tribesmen foreswore giving support, training and sanctuary to Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked fighters, although some foreigners were allowed to remain.

But the violence has not abated. Instead, Afghan officials and the U.S. military say that since the pact was signed, cross-border attacks have escalated.

Like many Afghans, Khail believes that despite Musharraf's persistent denials, his country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, still supports the Taliban and at least some of its allies. The intelligence documents show that the U.S. military shared this suspicion as recently as the start of this year.

Doubts about Pakistan's denials are reminiscent of the 1990s, when Islamabad contended that the ISI did not help found, train and arm the Taliban, though Pakistani heavy weapons and military officers were found among Taliban units.

Pakistan has historically sought influence in Afghanistan, in part because of a border dispute dating back to 1893, when the British drew a border, called the Durand Line, that divided the Pashtun tribal areas.

When Musharraf decided to publicly turn against the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks, some in Pakistan's security establishment warned that it could lose influence in Afghanistan, a strategic crossroads between oil-rich Central Asia and the energy-starved Indian subcontinent. The increasing influence of rivals such as India, Iran, Russia and China have confirmed such fears.

Here in Khowst province, which borders North Waziristan, militants have killed at least 12 Afghan border police and wounded 52 since early September, Khail said.

Most villagers have family ties that cross the border. They believe that their government is too weak to defend them and so they are drifting toward the real power in the region, the Taliban, added Khail, who is Pashtun, as are most Taliban members.

In October, Khail said, Taliban fighters who attacked a border post took the body of an Afghan border policeman back to Pakistan, where they mutilated it and paraded it around a village. Khail soon got a phone call from a Pakistani police officer, who told the Afghan commander that he could pick up the Afghan's remains at the border in exchange for the body of a Taliban militant. Among the three Pakistanis attending the exchange was a man in a Pakistani police uniform, Khail said.

"The Pakistani police know everything about the border problems," he said. "The Pakistanis are giving them the weapons, and they are arranging the Taliban attacks. They are training them and they give them food. There are hundreds of training camps there in Pakistan."

Repeated warnings

Intelligence warnings have for months documented U.S. worries about Pakistan's role in providing a haven for Afghan insurgents.

A map prepared in early 2005 for a U.S. Army Special Operations task force warned that officers at Pakistani border control posts were "assisting insurgent attacks." It showed militants' infiltration routes from Pakistan, several of which crossed from North Waziristan to Khowst province, where members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network who have long been based in Afghanistan are still active.

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