Islamic fighters expand

Groups are taking advantage of truce with Pakistan, officials say

December 11, 2006|By New York Times News Service

PESHAWAR, Pakistan --Islamic militants are using a recent peace deal with the government to consolidate their hold in northern Pakistan, vastly expanding their training of suicide bombers and other recruits, and fortifying alliances with al-Qaida and foreign fighters, diplomats and intelligence officials from several nations say. The result, they say, is virtually a Taliban ministate.

The militants, the officials say, are openly flouting the terms of the September accord in North Waziristan, under which they agreed to end cross-border help for the Taliban insurgency that revived in Afghanistan with new force this year.

The area is becoming a magnet for a new influx of foreign fighters, who not only challenge government authority in the area but are even wresting control from the local tribes, according to several American and NATO officials, and Pakistani and Afghan intelligence officials.

This year, more than 100 local leaders and government sympathizers or accused "American spies" have been killed, several of them in beheadings, as the militants have used a reign of terror to impose what President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan calls a creeping "Talibanization." Last year, at least 100 others were also killed.

While local tribes once offered refuge to the militants when they retreated to the area in 2002 after the American invasion of Afghanistan, that welcome is waning as the killings have generated new tensions and added to the region's volatility.

"They are taking territory," said one Western ambassador in Pakistan. "They are becoming much more aggressive in Pakistan."

"It is the lesson from Afghanistan in the '90s," he added. "Ungoverned spaces are a problem. The whole tribal area is a problem."

The links among the various groups date to the 1980s, when Arabs, Pakistanis and other Muslims joined Afghans in their fight to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, using a network of training camps and religious schools set up by the Pakistani intelligence agency and financed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia.

The training continued with Pakistani and al-Qaida support through the 1990s, and then moved into Afghanistan under the Taliban. Today, the history of the region has come full circle.

Since retreating from Afghanistan in 2002 under American military attacks, the Taliban and a recent influx of foreign fighters are again in the tribal areas to organize themselves - now training their sights on the 40,000 American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

These fighters include Afghans and seasoned Taliban leaders, Uzbek and other Central Asian militants, and what intelligence officials estimate to be 80 to 90 Arab terrorist operatives and fugitives, including possibly the al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The tightening web of alliances among these groups in a remote, mountainous area increasingly beyond state authority is potentially disastrous for efforts to combat terrorism as far away as Europe and the United States, intelligence officials warn.

They and Western diplomats say it also portends an even bloodier year for Afghanistan in 2007, with the winter expected to serve as what one official described as a "breeding season" to multiply ranks.

"I expect next year to be quite bloody," the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, said in an interview last week. "My sense is the Taliban wants to come back and fight. I don't expect the Taliban to win, but everyone needs to understand that we are in for a fight."

The increasingly urgent question for Pakistani, Afghan, American and NATO officials is what can be done to bring the region under control. The Pakistani government's latest attempt was the Sept. 5 peace accord in North Waziristan.

Under the deal, the government and militants agreed to cease attacks, and the militants agreed to end cross-border help for the Afghan insurgency, the killings of tribal leaders and accused government sympathizers, and "Talibanization" of the area.

Taliban commanders sanctioned the deals, arguing that the militants should concentrate their efforts on the foreign armies in Afghanistan and not waste their energies on clashing with the Pakistani military, journalists working in Waziristan say.

Critics say the agreement is fatally flawed since it lacks any means of enforcement and that it has empowered the militants. The policy analysis organization International Crisis Group brands it as a policy of appeasement, in a report to be released today.

The government has taken down checkpoints, released detainees, returned confiscated weapons and vehicles, and issued an amnesty. But the militants have increased their activities, benefiting from the truce with the Pakistani military, the groups said.

"From the start the agreement was not good, because there are too many concessions and no clauses that are binding," said Brig. Mahmood Shah, who served as secretary of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas until 2005.

A local politician and human rights advocate, Afrasiab Khattak, spokesman for the Awami National Party in Peshawar, also criticized the agreement. The militants rather than the traditional tribal leaders have the power now, he said.

Still, Javed Iqbal, the newly appointed Pakistani secretary of the tribal areas, defended the North Waziristan accord as an effort to return to the traditional way of running the tribal areas, through the tribal chiefs.

"We have tried the coercive tactic; we did not achieve much," he said in an interview in Peshawar. "So what do you do? Engage."

He said the government had let down the tribal elders in Waziristan who had wanted dialogue with the government but were murdered one after another by the militants. But the big turnout of some 500 to 600 tribal elders at a recent meeting in Miramshah in North Waziristan was encouraging, he said, and showed that the tribes wanted to engage. "We are back in business," he said.

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