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Growing strength of Pakistani Taliban worries U.S. officials

PESHAWAR, Pakistan—A Pakistan-based movement inspired by the former Taliban rulers of Afghanistan is growing along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, challenging U.S.-led efforts to stamp out insurgents in Afghanistan and hunt down Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.

Reports from the South Waziristan region, which is closed to foreign journalists, indicate that local leaders who also call themselves Taliban are setting up offices, recruiting followers and, in some places, acting as local judges.

In Wana, the regional capital, about 20 miles from the Afghan border, these Pakistani Taliban are laying down a strict code of conduct: Men are forbidden to shave, for example, and barbers, fearing punishment, are said to no longer offer the service.

Pakistan, under U.S. pressure, has deployed 80,000 troops to the border region to try to suppress the movement. While some Taliban encampments have been destroyed, their continued presence illustrates the limited success of the three-year military campaign.

"I think the government will be able to quell but it will not be able to root out the insurgency," said Afrasiab Khattak, a leader of the Awami National Party, which opposes the rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president.

The movement's growing strength deeply concerns U.S. officials. President Bush raised the issue when he met with Musharraf last weekend in Islamabad, as did Gen. John Abizaid, the top American commander for the Middle East and Central Asia, on a follow-up visit last week.

While American officials don't have a clear picture of the situation, some worry that Musharraf's heavy-handedness, including the use of helicopter gunships and artillery, and cross-border U.S. missile attacks aimed at al-Qaida members are fueling support for the movement.

Followers of the Pakistani Taliban are primarily members of the Pashtun tribes of the region, though they include some Afghans, Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban fell. Ethnic Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the border, made up Afghanistan's Taliban movement.

Led by commanders and radical clerics, the Pakistani Taliban follow the same unbending—many would say repressive—moral code as the Afghan Taliban and use the same terror tactics to intimidate their enemies.

The movement presents two problems for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. First, the Pakistani militants shelter Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida leaders and fighters as they flee American and Afghan forces. Secondly, Pakistani recruits reportedly are being trained to launch attacks and suicide bombings in Afghanistan.

The extent of the problem is difficult to measure, but it's become large enough to increase tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has urged Pakistan to act on a list of Taliban leaders and their whereabouts in Pakistan that the Afghan government had provided to Pakistan. Musharraf, in a CNN interview, retorted that the list was dated, and described the location given for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar as "absolutely nonsense."

It's also a growing challenge to Musharraf's ability to maintain stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan. He remains at odds with India over Kashmir, faces a growing insurgency in Baluchistan province and is wrestling with a host of other problems, from endemic corruption and poverty to hostility over his cooperation with the United States.

Bush said after his meeting with Musharraf that he was satisfied with Musharraf's commitment to capturing al-Qaida leaders. But Musharraf played down any expectations of finding bin Laden or his deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri.

"We don't know where they are," he told CNN. "We are launching our operations on all al-Qaida positions that we come to know, al-Qaida or Taliban. And in the process, if we can get them, we'll get them. But we don't exactly know where they are."

In South Waziristan, the government—amid mounting army casualties after two years of fighting—negotiated peace agreements with various Pakistani Taliban factions in late 2004 and early 2005. The leaders were granted amnesty in return for halting attacks.

The amnesty enabled Taliban groups to re-establish themselves in much of South Waziristan, including Wana, said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran Pakistani journalist who once interviewed bin Laden and has covered the Taliban movement for years.

"The Taliban have very smartly survived through these peace agreements," Yusufzai said.

Taliban activity now seems to be spreading to North Waziristan, in part because the military campaign in the south drove many militants to the north.

Even as Bush was meeting with Musharraf last weekend, Taliban fighters seized control of key buildings in Miran Shah, a North Waziristan town about 12 miles from the Afghan border.

Pakistani forces dislodged them only after firing artillery into the town, damaging buildings and sending the local population scurrying for safety. The Taliban have retreated to the surrounding hills and nearby villages, where residents suspect they're planning their next attack.

"I think South Waziristan is almost in the control of the extremist groups, and the same is now happening in North Waziristan," said Behroz Khan, the chief of the Peshawar bureau of The News, a Pakistani daily newspaper.

"The military cannot win against them," he added.

The battle in Miran Shah drove hundreds of people out of the town and surrounding villages. Most had to walk 12 miles to a checkpoint, as the military had cut off traffic to the town.

"When they fight, then we feel in danger," said Sibghatullah, a teenager who fled with 30 members of his extended family to the city of Bannu, and who goes by only one name. "Our houses can be destroyed."

Refugees at Bannu acknowledged the Taliban presence in their North Waziristan villages, but offered differing accounts of their influence. Some said villagers initially had gone to the Taliban to resolve disputes. Others said Taliban brutality had cost the movement popular support.

The Taliban won early accolades in the Miran Shah area late last year, when they took on and defeated a local bandit and his fighters.

But the aftermath of the fight appalled others. A Taliban video of the aftermath of the combat shows—perhaps unwittingly—several bystanders in the all-male crowd raising hands to cover their mouths in apparent shock as one bandit's severed head is displayed.

The video also shows the badly wounded bodies of dead bandits stripped to the waists and strung up by the necks for display.

However, Khan, the Peshawar bureau chief, said there also were indications that the military operation had turned the local population against the government. The army and the central government are dominated by majority Punjabis, who long have been rivals of the Pashtuns.

"So far, the Pakistani government and the U.S. government have only earned enmity," Khan said. The military deployment "has expanded the circle of enemies in the region rather than reducing it."

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(Moritsugu is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PAKISTAN

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