By JANE PERLEZ and PIR ZUBAIR SHAH —
PESHAWAR, Pakistan – President Obama is pouring more than 20,000 new troops into Afghanistan this year for a fighting season that the United States military has called a make-or-break test of the allied campaign in Afghanistan.
But if Taliban strategists have their way, those forces will face a stiff challenge, not least because of one distinct Taliban advantage: the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan barely exists for the Taliban, who are counting on the fact that American forces cannot reach them in their sanctuaries in Pakistan.
One Pakistani logistics tactician for the Taliban, a 28-year-old from the country’s tribal areas, in interviews with The New York Times, described a Taliban strategy that relied on free movement over the border and in and around Pakistan, ready recruitment of Pakistani men and sustained cooperation of sympathetic Afghan villagers.
His account provided a keyhole view of the opponent the Americans and their NATO allies are up against, as well as the workings and ambitions of the Taliban as they prepared to meet the influx of American troops.
It also illustrated how the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group of many brands of jihadist fighters backed by Al Qaeda, are spearheading wars on both sides of the border in what for them is a seamless conflict.
The tactician wears a thick but carefully shaped black beard and a well-trimmed shock of black hair, a look cultivated to allow him to move easily all over Pakistan. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by his fellow Taliban members.
But on an array of issues, discussed over six months of interviews with The Times, he showed himself to be knowledgeable of Taliban activities, and the information he provided matched up consistently with that of other sources.
He was well informed – and unconcerned, he said – of the plans of the head of the United States Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus, to replicate in Afghanistan some of the techniques he had used in Iraq to stop the Sunni tribes from fighting the Americans.
“I know of the Petraeus experiment there,” he said. “But we know our Afghans. They will take the money from Petraeus, but they will not be on his side. There are so many people working with the Afghans and the Americans who are on their payroll, but they inform us, sell us weapons.”
He acknowledged that the Americans would have far superior forces and power this year, but was confident that the Taliban could turn this advantage on its head. “The Americans cannot take control of the villages,” he said. “In order to expel us they will have to resort to aerial bombing, and then they will have more civilian casualties.”
The one thing that impressed him were the missile strikes by drones – virtually the only American military presence felt inside Pakistan. “The drones are very effective,” he said, acknowledging that they had thinned the top leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the area. He said 29 of his friends had been killed in the strikes.
The drone attacks simply prompted Taliban fighters to spend more time in Afghanistan, or to move deeper into Pakistan, straddling both theaters of a widening conflict. The recruits were prepared to fight where they were needed, in either country, he said.
In the fighting now under way in Buner and Dir Districts, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban are taking on the Pakistani Army in a battle that is the most obvious front of a long-haul strategy to destabilize and take over a nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban are directly singling out the United States and NATO forces by sending guerrillas to assist their Afghan Taliban allies in ousting the foreigners from Afghanistan.
While to the Taliban those conflicts are one fluid and sprawling war, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has long presented a firm barrier for the United States.
Although Pakistan is an official ally of the United States, the Pakistanis will not allow American troops to cross the border from Afghanistan. They will also not allow the troops to be present as a fighting force alongside the Pakistani military in the tribal areas that Al Qaeda and the Taliban use as a base.
The United States has helped Pakistan and Afghanistan recently open a series of joint posts to share intelligence and improve border monitoring. But those efforts are slight when compared with the demands of a 1,600-mile frontier of unforgiving terrain.
Despite years of demands by American and NATO commanders for Pakistan to control Taliban infiltration, the Taliban tactician said getting his fighters over the border was not a problem. The Pakistani paramilitary soldiers from the Frontier Corps who guard the border were too busy looking after their own survival, he said.
He has already begun moving 80 Taliban fighters in four groups stealthily into Afghanistan in the past month to meet the new American forces, he said.
The tactician says he embeds his men in what he described as friendly Afghan villages, where they will spend the next four to six months with the residents, who provide the weapons and succor for the missions against American and NATO soldiers.
In March, he made a reconnaissance trip by motorcycle to Paktika Province in Afghanistan from Wana, the main city in South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, to make sure the route was safe for his men. It was.
The main task for his first two groups of fighters will be to ambush convoys of NATO goods and soldiers on the Kandahar-Kabul highway, a major supply line for the allied war effort. “We want to inflict maximum trouble, to lower their morale, to destabilize,” he said.
His guerrillas, in their late teens to mid-20s, are handpicked for their endurance and commitment, he said. Some, like him, were trained by the Pakistani government as proxy fighters against India in Kashmir and have now joined the Qaeda and Taliban cause.
In a new twist, cameramen instructed to capture video of faltering American soldiers for propaganda DVDs are increasingly accompanying the guerrillas.
The tactician, a heavily built man who says he has put on weight in the past two years and is now too heavy and old to fight, said he was loyal to a commander named Mullah Mansoor.
In turn, Mr. Mansoor serves under the aegis of Siraj Haqqani, the son of a veteran Afghan mujahedeen leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani.
The tactician worked mostly from Wana, where he owns a small business and where, he acknowledged, the American drone strikes had disrupted life. The threat of the drones had ended the custom of gathering in groups of 10 to 20 men to discuss the issues of the day. “The gossip has finished,” he said.
The relationship between the Pakistani Taliban and Qaeda operatives, most of whom are Arabs, is respectful but distant, according to his descriptions.
The Arabs often go to the bazaar in Wana. But they bristle when asked questions, he said. “They never tell us their activities,” he said.
But the Taliban are willing providers for Al Qaeda. “When they need a suicide bomber, like blowing up a government building, we provide it,” he said.
There was respect for the scale of Al Qaeda’s ambitions. “They have a global agenda, they have a big design,” he said.
The Taliban goal was more narrow. “Capturing Afghanistan is not an Al Qaeda mission,” he said. “It’s a Taliban mission. We will be content in capturing Afghanistan and throwing the Americans out.”
The Pakistani Taliban will fight as long as it takes to defeat the Americans, he said. At the end of this fighting season, he said, “We will have a body count, and we will see who has broken whose back.”
Source: The New York Times