Militant Gains in Pakistan Said to Draw Fighters

 

 
 Militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, with his back to camera

New York Times 

WASHINGTON — American military and intelligence officials say there has been an increase in recent months in the number of foreign fighters who have traveled to Pakistan’s tribal areas to join with militants there.

The flow may reflect a change that is making Pakistan, not Iraq, the preferred destination for some Sunni extremists from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are seeking to take up arms against the West, these officials say.

The American officials say the influx, which could be in the dozens but could also be higher, shows a further strengthening of the position of the forces of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, increasingly seen as an important base of support for the Taliban, whose forces in Afghanistan have become more aggressive in their campaign against American-led troops.

According to the American officials, many of the fighters making their way to the tribal areas are Uzbeks, North Africans and Arabs from Persian Gulf states. American intelligence officials say that some jihadist Web sites have been encouraging foreign militants to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is considered a “winning fight,” compared with the insurgency in Iraq, which has suffered sharp setbacks recently.

The number of foreign fighters entering Iraq has dropped to fewer than 40 a month from as many as 110 a month a year ago, a military spokesman in Baghdad said Wednesday. “The sanctuary situation in Pakistan’s tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province is more, rather than less, troublesome than before,” Gen. David D. McKiernan, the new NATO commander in Afghanistan, said in a telephone interview. “The porous border has allowed insurgent militant groups a greater freedom of movement across that border, as well as a greater freedom to resupply, to allow leadership to sustain stronger sanctuaries, and to provide fighters across that border.”

The suicide bombing at the gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul on Monday underscored the increasing fears of American and Afghan officials that Taliban insurgents working with Pakistani intelligence operatives might have used the bombing to pursue Pakistan’s long power struggle with India.

Al Qaeda and other militant groups have used redoubts in Pakistan’s rugged mountains as havens for the past several years. But especially since the new Pakistani government sharply curtailed security operations in the tribal areas in March and began negotiating with tribal leaders to rein in the militants, the number of foreign fighters entering the tribal areas has increased “from a trickle to a steady stream,” said a Defense Department official who follows Pakistan closely, and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Some of the foreign militants take commercial flights into Pakistan and make their way to the tribal areas by car or bus, while a smaller, undetermined number go overland through Iran and then up through Baluchistan, the Defense Department official said. General McKiernan said, “There are noticeably more non-Pashtun-speaking fighters than this time last year.”

Some American intelligence officials cautioned, however, that the increases were still relatively small, perhaps a few dozen — military and independent analysts estimate between 150 and 500 hard-core Qaeda fighters are operating in the tribal area — and that Al Qaeda was still recruiting fighters and suicide bombers for both Afghanistan and Iraq.

With the number of attacks in eastern Afghanistan up by 40 percent from a year ago, senior Bush administration officials have been voicing increasing alarm about the growing strength of the militants using havens in Pakistan.

“The ability of the Taliban and other insurgents to cross that border and not being under any pressure from the Pakistani side of the border is clearly a concern,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters two weeks ago in one of his most pointed comments to date on the situation. “That’s the area that needs to be addressed with the Pakistani government.”

The Bush administration is struggling to work with the Afghan and Pakistani governments to find an effective combination of political, diplomatic and military tools to help stem the increasingly entrenched insurgency, but it has faced difficulties dealing with Pakistan’s new coalition government, officials say.

“We’re trying to impress upon the Pakistanis how bad things are,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. “Before, we could go to Musharraf,” the official said, speaking of President Pervez Musharraf. “Now it’s more of a power-sharing agreement, and it’s more difficult. There’s no apparent solution at hand. The next six months look like they’ll be a lot like the past six months.”

Four senior military officials said that Al Qaeda was strengthening its increasingly close operational ties in the tribal areas with the Taliban and various other militant groups — financing, training recruits and facilitating attacks into Afghanistan, though not necessarily conducting attacks themselves.

Inside Pakistan, the forces of the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan, an umbrella group of Taliban, are most prominent among the militants. The group is led by Baitullah Mehsud, who is accused by the Pakistani government of masterminding the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December and running scores of suicide bombers on both sides of the border.


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