ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - As U.S. forces began a new phase in the war in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government reported yesterday parallel political maneuvering to replace the Taliban regime.
The government confirmed that it held talks with Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, a top Afghan military commander supportive of the Taliban. Haqqani, a hero of the resistance against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, could command the loyalty of Pashtun tribes who back the Taliban.
Streets were calm in the aftermath of the U.S. commando raid in Afghanistan, although anti-war demonstrations, common in recent weeks, were planned for today in the Islamabad suburb of Rawilpindi.
Riaz Mohammed Khan, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, dismissed Taliban claims that it had shot down the U.S. helicopter that crashed during the commando operation, killing two U.S. servicemen. "It was an accident, not part of any military action against the Afghans," he said.
Addressing the political talks, Khan said Haqqani has crossed the border into Pakistan and met with Pakistani government officials and Afghan leaders in exile.
Haqqani controls the Taliban's strategic southern military command bordering Pakistan and holds the Cabinet post of minister in charge of tribal affairs. There is no indication that he has defected, but his visit comes amid allied efforts to exploit tensions within the ranks of the Taliban.
"This is something that the international community and the United Nations has been trying to promote," said Khan, who described Haqqani as "not a Taliban, but a commander of long-standing who is affiliated with the Taliban."
In an interview published yesterday by The News, an Islamabad English-language daily, Haqqani expressed support for the Taliban.
"We will retreat to the mountains and begin a long guerrilla war to reclaim our pure land from infidels and free our country like we did against the Soviets," Haqqani was quoted as saying. "We are eagerly awaiting the American troops to land on our soil, where we will deal with them in our own way."
Haqqani is a Ghilzai Pashtun tribal leader from the Jalalabad area in southeastern Afghanistan who became a powerful warlord during the war against the former Soviet Union. The Taliban recruited him and his forces to help capture the Afghan capital of Kabul in 1995.
"There are significant differences between Haqqani and the Taliban in Kandahar, but the Taliban realize how powerful he is and have given him a lot of autonomy," said Kamal Matinuddin, a retired Pakistani general and expert on the Afghan military. "If they can break him away from [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, that would be an important achievement."
Pakistan had a terrorist scare yesterday when an unattended piece of luggage in a waiting room at the Islamabad airport turned out to contain a small explosive device. Security officials put the bag in a bomb blanket and took it to a concrete bunker in the parking lot, where it exploded harmlessly.
Meanwhile, as many as 5,000 Afghan refugees crossed the border with Pakistan near Quetta, all carrying travel papers that allowed them entry, United Nations officials said. They said about 10,000 refugees without documents were nearby inside Afghanistan. Relief agencies say more than 5 million Afghans need humanitarian aid.