PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A new alliance of Pakistani extremist groups — united after rival warlords vowed to renew the fight against international troops — threatens to escalate the insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan just as thousands more U.S. soldiers are to be deployed to the region.
NATO nations, which lead the international coalition in Afghanistan, are concerned that the new militant partnership in Pakistan's Waziristan region, which lies on the Afghan border, will significantly increase cross-border influx of fighters and suicide bombers. The move could preempt President Barack Obama's new Afghanistan strategy, even before it's launched.
The Islamic militants' sudden unity appears aimed against the upcoming "surge" of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and the fast-approaching spring season for resumption of hostilities, Western and Pakistani officials believe. It comes after a call by Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who leads the Afghan Taliban insurgents, to Pakistani militants to stop fighting at home in order to join the battle to "liberate Afghanistan from the occupation forces."
The Pakistani Taliban, an extremist movement that apes its older Afghan Taliban cousin, is centered in Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban previously was split, with a powerful group led by Baitullah Mehsud at odds with rival warlords Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur. Among the three, they control North and South Waziristan with little interference from the Pakistani state.
While Mehsud has targeted Pakistan itself in a vicious campaign of violence and is accused of being behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Nazir and Bahadur sent their men to fight alongside other insurgents in Afghanistan.
The alliance, reached in the last couple of weeks, means they have settled their differences and have committed to re-direct their efforts into the Afghanistan campaign, according to officials and locals from Waziristan.
The three factions formed a new grouping calling itself Shura Ittihad-ul-Mujahideen, or Council of United Holy Warriors. The move directs attacks away from Pakistan and focuses the warfare against international and Afghan forces, especially those stationed in southern and eastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border.
"It's of concern to us when we see a grouping like that," said a Western security official in Pakistan, who couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "This can't be ignored."
"Pakistan's got to decide: what are they going to do about Waziristan?"
In Washington, U.S. military officials privately concede that they are worried that their Pakistani counterparts can't secure the border areas enough to stop attacks from bleeding into Afghanistan.
Indeed, during meetings last week with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, top U.S. military officials talked extensively with Kayani about his efforts to better secure the border, knowing his options are limited.
Some U.S. officials are resigned to a dangerous spring in Afghanistan. Despite those concerns and the renewed threats, however, the U.S. military said it's undeterred.
"We are well aware of the dangers in Afghanistan and along the border and that is exactly why we are sending more troops there," a senior military official told McClatchy. He asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Pakistan was already under intense Western pressure to act against extremists based in its tribal area. A Western military adviser, also based in Pakistan, said that the alliance would further strengthen the grip of the militants over Waziristan. It's home not only to the Pakistani Taliban but also the Afghan Taliban and al Qaida, who use Waziristan and other parts of the tribal area as a refuge where they can regroup and launch attacks against Afghan and NATO forces.
"No insurgency has ever been destroyed as long as the sanctuaries are still alive. If the sanctuaries are gaining more strength, that certainly worries NATO," the military adviser said.
The Obama administration already has announced 17,000 extra troops for Afghanistan. The new American forces will concentrate on areas close to the Pakistan border, which are the most troublesome, bringing them up against the cross-border insurgency.
In an apparent response to the shift of U.S. troops, Mullah Omar has directed Pakistani militants in Waziristan to halt attacks on Pakistani forces. Baitullah Mehsud is feared across Pakistan, having led a bloody assault on his own country since 2007, killing hundreds of soldiers, policemen and ordinary Pakistanis through suicide attacks and other bombings. His brutal tactics, influenced by al Qaida, were controversial even within the Taliban, however.
"If anybody really wants to wage Jihad, he must fight the occupation forces inside Afghanistan," Mullah Omar told Pakistani militants in a letter, according to reports of the document that appeared in the Pakistani press. "Attacks on the Pakistani security forces and killing of fellow Muslims by the militants in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan is bringing a bad name to Mujahideen and harming the war against the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan."
The Pakistani Taliban recognize Mullah Omar, founder of the original Taliban movement in Afghanistan, as the ultimate leader, although operationally they are said to work independently.
"Baitullah Mehsud is now taking on the Americans," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general-turned analyst.
Baitullah Mehsud has just called his fighters off in two key battles inside Pakistan, with cease-fires declared in the Swat valley, in the country's North West Frontier Province, and Bajaur, another part of the tribal territory. While Pakistani forces claim to have "won" in Bajaur, they show no appetite for taking the war to Waziristan, the fountainhead of extremism. Controversially, the Pakistani government has acceded to the militants' demand for Islamic law in Swat.
Major General Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistan army, said that there was "no plan" to start offensive operations in Waziristan. "It's the government that decides these things," he added.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent in Pakistan. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article from Washington.)