WASHINGTON — The escalating insurgency in Afghanistan is being spearheaded by a trio of warlords who came to prominence in the CIA-backed war to oust the Soviets but who now direct attacks against U.S. forces from havens in Pakistan, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials.
Militant groups led by the three veteran mujahedin are behind a sharp increase this year in the number and sophistication of attacks in Afghanistan and pose a major challenge to President Bush's hope of stabilizing the country by deploying thousands of additional troops.
Despite a flurry of U.S. airstrikes against their organizations and million-dollar bounties on their heads, the Pashtun chieftains have been able to operate, and even expand their networks, largely unmolested from bases spread along the border with Pakistan.
U.S. intelligence officials have lamented the difficulty of tracking down Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But the hunt for the three warlords has in some ways been even more frustrating, in part because of their often high-profile roles in directing operations against U.S.-led military forces and other Western targets in Afghanistan.
Because of their battle experience and credentials, the warlords "play both an operational role and a psychological role," said a senior Bush administration official involved in tracking the insurgency.
Citing their ability to attract recruits and orchestrate attacks, "it would be a mistake to underestimate the influence of any of them," said the official, who, like others, discussed intelligence assessments about the warlords on condition of anonymity.
The three warlords are Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former leader of the Taliban government in Afghanistan; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic hard-liner who briefly served as prime minister in the 1990s before ordering his forces to bomb the Taliban-run capital; and Jalaluddin Haqqani, a onetime Taliban Cabinet minister whose tribal group has accounted for some of the most brazen attacks this year.
U.S. officials said there was little evidence of substantial collaboration among the three, though there are indications that despite their past differences, they communicate and occasionally share information and resources.
The warlords are generally not blamed for a surge of violence in Pakistan. Instead, they are seen as exporters of violence to Afghanistan.
All three have for years been the focus of U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts. But Washington's pursuit has taken on added urgency as the warlords have expanded their influence in lawless regions of Pakistan that not only are bases for attacks across the border in Afghanistan but serve as sanctuary for Al Qaeda.
"Our government as a whole recognizes the dangers these people pose, and they are indeed targets," a senior U.S. intelligence official said. "Their operations, and their cooperation with Al Qaeda, make them more than a local or regional threat."
The official said that strikes by unmanned CIA Predator aircraft and other military operations have yielded "important successes against their organizations, their training compounds and the networks through which anti-coalition fighters are funneled into Afghanistan."
But the ability of the tribal leaders to escape harm underscores the daunting task the United States faces as security in Afghanistan deteriorates.
The three warlords' organizations are arrayed in an arc along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Haqqani and Hekmatyar have directed attacks in and around the Afghan capital, Kabul, and helped revitalize the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are concentrated. Omar's influence is mainly in the Taliban heartland to the south, radiating outward from Kandahar.
"Because they don't hang their hats in Afghanistan, we really have got no options in terms of going after them," said Capt. Michael Erwin, an intelligence officer with a U.S. special operations forces group that served in Afghanistan in 2007. "If Americans can't get a guy like Haqqani or Hekmatyar, it's because they're deep into the FATA," Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
U.S. officials blame Islamic extremists based in Pakistan for a 30% increase in attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year. They have responded by using more unilateral force, including specially equipped Predators, on suspected bases in Pakistan's tribal areas.
The three warlords have long-standing ties to Pakistan's powerful spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which U.S. officials have accused of collaborating with insurgent groups and tipping them to American strikes. The ISI has "a desire to maintain their status as leaders," said a senior U.S. military analyst, referring to the three chieftains, who represent one way for Pakistan to influence events in Afghanistan.