A triangle of militants regroups in Afghanistan

Intelligence officials say Al Qaeda and Taliban are tied to a radical Islamist party.

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Sana Hamid has come to Pakistan to recruit a few good terrorists.

Not just anyone will do. There are plenty of people in this part of Pakistan who would love to fight American forces in Afghanistan. But Mr. Hamid and his Afghan guerrilla leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, need people with skills that will mesh with their allies - the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

"We are trying to regroup into a force like we were during Afghan Jihad (the Soviet-Afghan war)," says Hamid, a former information official for his party, the Hizb-i Islami. He spoke to the Monitor on condition that neither his location nor his real name would be disclosed.

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For months, Afghan and US intelligence officials have warned about a regrouping of Al Qaeda and the Taliban on both sides of the porous Afghan-Pakistani border. More ominous still for the war in Afghanistan is the reported alliance of America's enemies with old friends from the Soviet war, namely the radical Islamist party Hizb-i Islami. Some leaflets signed by Hizb and Taliban leaders have even called on Muslims to join an all-out jihad or holy struggle against American forces timed to the beginning of America's war in Iraq.

"We do not need military training, as even an eight- and 10-year old boy knows how to use a Kalashnikov," Hamid says. "We have suicide squads of Al Qaeda. They are like walking bombs, and they are our biggest weapons against Americans in Afghanistan."

While signs of this regrouping are mostly limited to a scattering of printed leaflets and a few fiery speeches in local mosques, Afghan officials say an alliance of these three groups may present the greatest security challenge to the fragile transitional government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and to the American forces who remain behind to keep the peace.

"There is a slow return of the evil triangle, made up of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Hizb-i Islami, and at the top of this triangle is the man who is the shrewdest, and that is Hekmatyar," says Masood Khalili, the Afghan ambassador to India in New Delhi. "These elements think that America will be distracted by the war in Iraq, and that the US will not stay in Afghanistan. This is not true, I think. But if we do lose the Afghanistan battle, we will lose the war against the terrorists."

While the activities of Hizb are known in just about every mosque or bazaar along the Afghan border, most Hizb supporters remain quite out of sight. And most prominent Hizb leaders have gone underground as a result of a Pakistani crackdown on radical Islamist groups.

One top leader, Qutbuddin Hilal, a former second in command under Mr. Hekmatyar, now lives under virtual house arrest in Hayatabad, a suburb of Peshawar. Pakistani authorities say the detention is for Mr. Hilal's protection: Hilal recently broke with Hekmatyar to back the Karzai government.

But the Hizb public presence is not completely erased.

In the massive Shamshatoo refugee camp, just 15 miles from Peshawar, in a guardhouse that bears the sign "Hizb-i Islami Afghanistan Education Committee," some Hizb members politely share their ambivalence toward the new Karzai government, the US troops, and about the rumors of their own party's newly announced jihad.

"Yes, we've heard about this jihad, but we don't know what is really happening in Afghanistan," says Noor Mohammad, head of the Hizb guards at Shamshatoo camp. "What we know we have read in the newspapers."

"Right now we don't know where [Hekmatyar] is, and he doesn't know where we are," says Noor Mohammad, coyly. "If Hekmatyar announces good policies, we will welcome him. But whosoever continues any of the old mistakes, whether he's Hekmatyar or Karzai, we will fight him."

Sultan Mehmud, editor of Shahadaat, a pro-Hizb-i-Islami newspaper in Peshawar, says he's not sure how much of the talk of Hizb regrouping is either propaganda by Afghan authorities or wishful thinking by Hizb itself. Still, he concedes there is substantial anger among Afghans and Afghan refugees.

"If the government left all those Taliban people alone, they would shave their beards and come back to enjoy the peace," says Mr. Mehmud. "But now the Americans are coming to your homes, capturing your brothers, humiliating your sister, and saying 'You are Taliban.' By their own hands, they are forcing the Taliban to regroup again. If America had one opponent before, they have two or three opponents now."

Like most ethnic Pashtuns, who make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan as well as a significant minority in Pakistan, Hamid says he has lost faith in the Karzai government.

Part of this loss of faith is based on a desire to impose an Islamic-style government in Afghanistan, instead of a democracy, and also on a popular Pashtun belief that Karzai relies too heavily on the power of the ethnic Tajik minority. The Tajiks control the Northern Alliance, a private army which helped US forces to oust the Taliban regime.

"Everybody has a consensus in Afghanistan that the job of the foreign forces is finished and the Northern Alliance cannot rule Afghanistan," Hamid says.

Traveling in a day from his home base in the Afghan province of Laghman, Hamid easily entered Pakistan under an assumed name, using the legal border crossing of Torkham in the famed Khyber Pass.

He confirms rumors that Hizb, Taliban, and Al Qaeda leaders have formed an alliance of their own, in which each group operates in areas where their strength is greatest. Hizb's strength is greatest in the Afghan provinces of Konar, Nangrahar, Laghman, Logar, Paktia, and Khost.

The Taliban's strength is greatest in Kandahar, Helmand, Zabol, Uruzgan, and Nimroz. Al Qaeda's positions are more fluid, filling in gaps and constantly moving.

Yet Hamid admits that the uprising still has its problems to confront. "We do have difficulties," he says. "The biggest hurdle is to counter the B-52s that fire at us and all we can do is watch helplessly. That is why we are targeting the US bases or ambushing their convoys."

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