Thursday, September 24, 2009

Taliban Widen Afghan Attacks From Base in Pakistan



WASHINGTON — Senior Taliban leaders, showing a surprising level of sophistication and organization, are using their sanctuary in Pakistan to stoke a widening campaign of violence in northern and western Afghanistan, senior American military and intelligence officials say.

The Taliban’s expansion into parts of Afghanistan that it once had little influence over comes as the Obama administration is struggling to settle on a new military strategy for Afghanistan, and as the White House renews its efforts to get Pakistan’s government to be more aggressive about killing or capturing Taliban leaders inside Pakistan.

American military and intelligence officials, who insisted on anonymity because they were discussing classified information, said the Taliban’s leadership council, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar and operating around the southern Pakistani city of Quetta, was directly responsible for a wave of violence in once relatively placid parts of northern and western Afghanistan. A recent string of attacks killed troops from Italy and Germany, pivotal American allies that are facing strong opposition to the Afghan war at home.

These assessments echo a recent report by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, in portraying the Taliban as an increasingly sophisticated shadow government that sees itself on the cusp of victory in the war-ravaged nation.

General McChrystal’s report describes how Mullah Omar’s insurgency has appointed shadow governors in most provinces of Afghanistan, levies taxes, establishes Islamic courts there and conducts a formal review of its military campaign each winter.

American officials say they believe that the Taliban leadership in Pakistan still gets support from parts of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s military spy service. The ISI has been the Taliban’s off-again-on-again benefactor for more than a decade, and some of its senior officials see Mullah Omar as a valuable asset should the United States leave Afghanistan and the Taliban regain power.

The issue of the Taliban leadership council, or shura, in Quetta is now at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda in its meetings with Pakistani officials.

At the same time, American officials face a frustrating paradox: the more the administration wrestles publicly with how substantial and lasting a military commitment to make to Afghanistan, the more the ISI is likely to strengthen bonds to the Taliban as Pakistan hedges its bets.

American officials have long complained that senior Taliban leaders operating from Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province, provide money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan, where most of the nearly 68,000 American forces are deployed.

But since NATO’s offensive into the Taliban-dominated south this spring, the insurgents have surprised American commanders by stepping up attacks against allied troops elsewhere in the country to throw NATO off balance and create the perception of spreading violence that neither the allied military nor the civilian Afghan government in Kabul can control.

“The Taliban is trying to create trouble elsewhere to alleviate pressure” in the south, said one senior American intelligence official. “They’ve outmaneuvered us time and time again.”

The issue has opened fresh rifts between the United States and Pakistan over how to combat the Taliban leadership council in Quetta. American officials have voiced new and unusually public criticism of Pakistan’s role in abetting the growing Afghan insurgency, reviving tensions that seemed to have eased after the two countries worked closely to track and kill Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in an American missile strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas last month.

General McChrystal said in his assessment, which was made public on Monday, “Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with Al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups,” and are reportedly aided by “some elements” of the ISI.

The United States ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, said in a recent interview with the McClatchy newspapers that the Pakistani government was “certainly reluctant to take action” against the leadership of the Afghan insurgency.

Pakistani officials take issue with that, adding that the United States overstates the threat posed by the Quetta shura, possibly because the American understanding of the situation is distorted by vague and self-serving intelligence provided by Afghanistan’s spy service.

A senior Pakistani official said that the United States had asked Pakistan in recent years to round up 10 Taliban leaders in Quetta. Of those 10, 6 were killed or captured by the Pakistanis, 2 were probably in Afghanistan and the remaining 2 presented no threat.

“Pakistan has said it’s willing to act when given actionable intelligence,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “We have made substantial progress in the last year or so against the Quetta shura.”

Pakistani officials also said that a move against militant leaders in Quetta risked inciting public anger throughout Baluchistan, a region that has long had a tense relationship with Pakistan’s government in Islamabad.

Mullah Omar, a reclusive cleric, recently rallied his troops with a boastful message timed for the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr.

In the message, he taunted his American adversaries for ignoring the lessons of past military failures in Afghanistan, including the invasion of Alexander the Great’s army.

And he bragged that the Taliban had emerged as a nationalistic movement that “is approaching the edge of victory.”

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