Pakistani Taliban besieged, but confident

In a basement in Bannu, a group of Pakistani Taliban vow to continue Afghan operations.

The 26-year-old Pakistani pro-Taliban militant Majnoon used to openly vice patrol in his hometown, Datta Khel, along the Afghan border, he says. But since a peace agreement in his area ended two months ago, the Pakistani Army is after him, and he says he can no longer go after those who violate Islamic social norms. But he still wants to continue his struggle for an Islamic state in Afghanistan.

"Now the training camps over here are shunned, and everybody is on the road to get training in suicide attacks and other tactics inside Afghanistan," says Majnoon, wearing a white prayer cap.

Majnoon, and a few other self-declared Taliban fighters interviewed recently in a basement in Bannu, say that the NATO and US forces in Afghanistan now face more threats from Pakistani pro-Taliban militants than before a controversial peace agreement was broken.

Pro-Taliban militants and the Pakistani government signed a heavily criticized peace agreement in February 2005 and September 2006. The Pakistani Army agreed to reduce its presence in tribal areas if the militants would stop attacking the Pakistani Army and forces in Afghanistan.

But many analysts and observers said that the peace agreement provided free cross-border movement for Taliban fighters, thereby increasing violence and instability.

Last July, the agreement came to an end following a standoff between the Pakistani military and militants in Islamabad's Lal (Red) Mosque.

No longer occupied with vice patrols and running their own tribal government, Majnoon and other Pakistani Taliban say they are now devoting their efforts fighting the Pakistani military and foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, though it has become harder for them to operate.

"Now that the peace agreement is broken it is very difficult for us to move in groups or convoys, because now we are against the military persons, and police officials are everywhere," says Majnoon, making sure to stay in line with his Muslim beliefs and avoid eye contact with his female interviewer.

This development is dangerous for both the foreign and local forces in Afghanistan, say the interviewees, and has already proved lethal for Pakistani security personnel.

Indeed, a new United Nations report shows an upsurge in violence in Afghanistan this year. On average the country has seen an average of 550 violent incidents per month, compared with 425 a month last year.

Some analysts are skeptical of the Pakistani militants' remarks about having more time and incentive to cross into Afghanistan. "They have their own fight here now. They cannot spare any fighters to go to Afghanistan," says Rahimullah Yousafsai, an editor for the Pakistani newspaper The News.

Samina Ahmad, project director for South Asia at the International Crisis Group in Islamabad, agrees. "They have been targeting Bannu every second day," she says.

Though Maulana Attaullah Shah Bukhari, head of the Pakistani Taliban in Bannu, seems light-hearted, smiling after every answer, he considers himself at war. "It is just retaliation here [in Pakistan], but on the other side of the border, NATO forces US coalition forces, and British forces will face the brunt of this situation," he says, referring to the broken peace agreement.

Mr. Bukhari is an enormous man with a long beard, and trained in the notorious Haqqani Madrassah, a religious school that produced several prominent Taliban leaders. He says that now he produces his own Taliban fighters for Afghanistan in his religious school with 2,000 students and followers.

One of them is Qari Afsar, who says that he just came back from the Afghan province of Uruzgan. "We have their cooperation in every aspect, in bread, butter, life, weapons, everything," he says, referring to the Afghans.

The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban coordinate their attacks by satellite phones, says one of the turban-headed fighters who requests not to be named. "We have a special wireless system through which we communicate, clear issues with each other, and to tell who's coming and who's going."

Ms. Ahmad confirms that Taliban militants, like Majnoon and Bukhari are growing stronger in Pakistan. "A US national intelligence assessment tells us that the Taliban have revised and reinvigorated their presence in Pakistan's tribal belt," he says.

Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a press statement that "the president has repeatedly affirmed Pakistan's determination not to allow our territory to be used against Afghanistan." It also said that 100,000 troops and 1,000 military posts were put along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

But militants maintain that crossing the border is easy. "We don't feel any kind of fear that anyone will spy on us or the government will arrest us, because the other side of the border is also our land," says Bukhari.

Asad Durrani, the former head of Pakistan military's Inter-Services Intelligence Bureau, says it is impossible to stop the cross-border movement. But he downplays the role of Pakistani and other foreign fighters in Afghanistan. "Foreigners never made a difference in Afghanistan."

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