On the trail of Taliban's support

Times Staff Writer

The guerrillas followed a dirt road from the Pakistan border through a valley surrounded by low, grassy mountains to their target: an Afghan police post.

Not long after sunset, they opened fire from several sides. For almost four hours, scores of suspected Taliban fighters outgunned the lightly armed Afghan border police, and almost overran their camp.

Then, as quickly as it started, the fight ended. The militants picked up their dead and wounded and fled back into sanctuaries, three miles away, in one of the loosely governed tribal areas of Pakistan.

"A hundred armed Taliban men passed through the Pakistani border with their equipment, and with their rocket-propelled grenade launchers," said Qasim Khail, commander of the Afghan border police's 2nd Brigade, which guards the post here. "And they retreated the same way. There are only two escape routes out of here, and both of them end at a Pakistani border post."

Confidential documents obtained by The Times show that for at least two years, U.S. military intelligence agencies have warned American commanders that Taliban militants were arming and training in Pakistan, then slipping into Afghanistan with the help of Pakistani border control officers.

Pact with Islamabad

On Sept. 5, Pashtun tribal leaders in Pakistan's North Waziristan border region signed a pact with the central government in Islamabad led by President Pervez Musharraf, an avowed ally of the U.S. in its declared war on terrorism.

Under the agreement, the Pakistani army, which had fought fierce battles with pro-Taliban militants, withdrew from the region, leaving a tribal force in charge of border posts. In return, the tribesmen foreswore giving support, training and sanctuary to Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked fighters, although some foreigners were allowed to remain.

But the violence has not abated. Instead, Afghan officials and the U.S. military say that since the pact was signed, cross-border attacks have escalated.

Like many Afghans, Khail believes that despite Musharraf's persistent denials, his country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, still supports the Taliban and at least some of its allies. The intelligence documents show that the U.S. military shared this suspicion as recently as the start of this year.

Doubts about Pakistan's denials are reminiscent of the 1990s, when Islamabad contended that the ISI did not help found, train and arm the Taliban, though Pakistani heavy weapons and military officers were found among Taliban units.

Pakistan has historically sought influence in Afghanistan, in part because of a border dispute dating back to 1893, when the British drew a border, called the Durand Line, that divided the Pashtun tribal areas.

When Musharraf decided to publicly turn against the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks, some in Pakistan's security establishment warned that it could lose influence in Afghanistan, a strategic crossroads between oil-rich Central Asia and the energy-starved Indian subcontinent. The increasing influence of rivals such as India, Iran, Russia and China have confirmed such fears.

Here in Khowst province, which borders North Waziristan, militants have killed at least 12 Afghan border police and wounded 52 since early September, Khail said.

Most villagers have family ties that cross the border. They believe that their government is too weak to defend them and so they are drifting toward the real power in the region, the Taliban, added Khail, who is Pashtun, as are most Taliban members.

In October, Khail said, Taliban fighters who attacked a border post took the body of an Afghan border policeman back to Pakistan, where they mutilated it and paraded it around a village. Khail soon got a phone call from a Pakistani police officer, who told the Afghan commander that he could pick up the Afghan's remains at the border in exchange for the body of a Taliban militant. Among the three Pakistanis attending the exchange was a man in a Pakistani police uniform, Khail said.

"The Pakistani police know everything about the border problems," he said. "The Pakistanis are giving them the weapons, and they are arranging the Taliban attacks. They are training them and they give them food. There are hundreds of training camps there in Pakistan."

Repeated warnings

Intelligence warnings have for months documented U.S. worries about Pakistan's role in providing a haven for Afghan insurgents.

A map prepared in early 2005 for a U.S. Army Special Operations task force warned that officers at Pakistani border control posts were "assisting insurgent attacks." It showed militants' infiltration routes from Pakistan, several of which crossed from North Waziristan to Khowst province, where members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network who have long been based in Afghanistan are still active.

On Jan. 19 of this year, a report from the U.S. military's Joint Intelligence Task Force said that Al Qaeda continued "to provide expertise and resources, such as weapons, training, and fighters to anti-coalition groups including the Taliban" and its allies, among which is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami militia.

In a separate report the same month, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, identified six eastern provinces, including Khowst, as "Al Qaeda strongholds."

"These locations allow Al Qaeda members easy entrance and exit over the Afghanistan/Pakistan border," it added.

The document identified Al Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan as Khalid Habib, and said "Al Qaeda maintains close ties to the Taliban and has received technical support and training from Pakistani militant groups."

It warned that armed Afghans, Arabs and Pakistanis who might attack U.S. forces were in Afghanistan. And it said that Pakistan's ISI directorate posed "a HIGH intelligence threat to U.S. and Coalition forces."

Pakistani intelligence agencies were recruiting sources among Afghan interpreters for U.S. forces, collecting information on U.S. counterintelligence operations, the report said. It also noted continued risks for the U.S. military posed by spies for Iran, Russia and India.

The DIA report said Iranian spies gathered information from the U.S. Embassy's Afghan guards, interviewed Afghan visitors and shadowed American staff. It described the Iranians as a "critical threat."

Another DIA report from early this year said that senior Taliban leaders in Pakistan were directing operations that had led to a fourfold increase in suicide bombings. It said the bombings were carried out to boost Taliban morale and to show financial backers that it was worth funding the insurgency.

Like several other intelligence reports, the "Warning Assessment for Afghanistan" suggested that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader who led the Afghan government until U.S.-led forces ousted it five years ago, may have split with other senior commanders over the increased used of suicide bombings. Omar's faction appeared "concerned about collateral damage turning the populace against the movement," the report said.

Remains of the battle

After the Nov. 27 battle at Lizha, about 12 miles southwest of a U.S. base in this border region, Khail's men counted 27 Taliban rocket-propelled grenade blast sites. One RPG exploded in the small, empty room where the police normally slept.

The 25 Afghan police defending the post had four RPGs; one hit a Taliban guerrilla as he crawled toward a gap in the camp's wall.

Days after the battle, the charred and blood-soaked remains of the patu blanket that he had worn lay on the ground, along with dried soybeans that he had spilled, about 15 yards from the barrier.

At least five militants were killed in the clash; the fighters took the bodies of three back with them. Afghan police, who did not suffer casualties, buried the other two near the dirt road leading to Pakistan. One of the dead men's black size 10 shoes lay at one end of his stony grave.

The raid was the third on the border post in as many months. Each time, the militants approached through the Zhawar Valley, which leads to an area of North Waziristan dominated by Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. His forces have a reputation for kidnappings, suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.

Haqqani became the Taliban's supreme military commander on the eve of the 2001 war with U.S.-led troops and allied Afghan forces, and has escaped several U.S. airstrikes. His men appear determined to seize the Lizha camp; each attacking force is bigger and better-armed than the last, Khail said.

Abdul Ghafaar, the Lizha post's commander, said he radioed Khail in Khowst for help when his police came under attack Nov. 27. Khail said he immediately phoned the nearby U.S. base, which promised to send aircraft. But the besieged police post never saw one.

NATO, which took over command of U.S. and allied troops in eastern Afghanistan in October, said a support aircraft flew over the area but did not attack enemy forces.

Khail recently invited five tribal elders to his office in the hope of persuading them to help stop attacks on the border posts. They weren't sympathetic.

"They attacked my house," Haji Shad Raan said. "They have killed hundreds of our elders and they will try to kill us too. Now the first question you have to answer is, 'Who should I defend, my house or your post?' "

When Khail spoke, he was nearly pleading. "I know that your tribe is very brave, and I know that your tribesmen are very brave," he said he told them. "But all I complain about is that the enemy shoots at me from your door. The enemy shoots at me from your mosque. Can you do this much and stop them from shooting at me from your doorstep? Can't you?"

After the meeting, Khail said he understood why the elders were supporting his enemies. The Taliban is stronger, and in Pashtun culture, that commands respect and allegiance.

"We don't need a government that has no power or the ability to protect us," Gul Ahmad Khan told the police commander. "We know that this government is very weak. It only stands with the power of foreigners and nothing else."

paul.watson@latimes.com

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